Warrior Among Wolves: Hai on Leadership

What wolves, psychology theory and Hai have to say about successful shotcalling.
A leader getting a selfie with a leader
A leader getting a selfie with a leader © Red Bull Content Pool
By Rob Zacny

"This went better than I thought it would," says Hai Lam, reclining on a chair at the end of a team-building session involving a pack of wolves. "I was a little bit nervous. They're wolves, you know?"

Hai is deep in thought about the lessons of the day. Even though he's no longer an LCS League of Legends captain, he's still hungry for new insights on leadership and teamwork. He could be forgiven for putting those questions behind him. Shotcalling for Cloud9 is no longer his problem, after all, and he did more than his share over the years to help lead the team to becoming one of the premier eSports organizations in North America. But even if he's moved on, he's still trying to learn and grow as a leader and mentor. But the puzzle, he admits, is that leadership is in many ways unteachable.

"People always ask me how I learned how to shotcall. How did I learn how to lead? And it's really hard to be taught. You either are a leader, or you really, really aren't," he says. "You can try to be taught, and you might be effective at it, but it's not something where I can tell someone, 'Hey, this is what you need to do.' It's just something that you have or you don't."

© Red Bull Content Pool

The Jung warrior

Nothing made more of an impression on Hai than learning about Jungian archetypes: The underlying personalities that, in some views of human nature and psychology, dictate our approach to life. It broadly breaks people down into four categories: Kings, Wizards/Magicians, Warriors and Lovers (that last category is probably less horny than you think, having more to do with aesthetic and sensory appreciation).

It's a concept that Hai hadn't heard before, but he found the Warrior archetype so resonant that he keeps returning to this newfound Jungian framework as a source of illumination.

"That's something I hadn't heard before. To me that shows that there are things everyone needs to work on. There is no perfect person. And that personality mapping shows that I do need to work on making sure to keep in mind what other people need," he says. "Because warriors are charging upfront, they just go and don't wait. They're impatient. And that's definitely a trait I would consider that I have."

It's something that Hai wrestles with. Even in conversation, he's quick-witted and slightly distracted, practically answering questions before they've been asked. It's not just that Hai talks fast, it's that he thinks fast and is always in a rush to get to the next thing.

It's not necessarily a virtue, he admits.

"I am pretty impatient when it comes to people and things. Like if they don't understand that right away, I don't have very much patience or compassion for them," he says. "But I need keep in mind that everyone is different and everyone needs different things to succeed. And whether or not they people are slower or quicker than me [shouldn't] matter as long as everyone does succeed."

Hai and team working their way out of a challenge © Red Bull Content Pool

Being the alpha

Impatience is not a desirable trait, even if it's sometimes idealized as a hallmark trait for identifying leaders, Hai says. It's a lesson paralleled by the wolfpack structure, one of nature's highest performing teams whose function is widely misunderstood and misrepresented, according to the Apex Protection Project — a wolf conservation and rescue organization that helped introduce Hai to the animals.

"They were explaining about how being 'alphas' doesn't necessarily mean [alpha wolves] were bullying others, or subjecting them to their will," Hai says. "They are kind of just an alpha because there's a presence around them that makes them the alpha. They don't need to go around saying they are the alpha. They are very helpful and considerate and kind. But at the same time, they are strong, and they know what they want to do."

The example of the wolfpack is often used to romanticize bullying, controlling behavior as being indicative of dominance, or strength. But that's actually 180 degrees from the way it works with actual wolves, where "alphas" do not so much battle for dominance as they are simply recognized and accepted as leaders, and who fulfill that role by being caretakers and a protective, watchful presence within the pack. It's a role Hai tries to mirror.

"I feel like I don't try to bully other people into doing what needs to be done. I just tell them what needs to be done, and they understand that I have no ulterior motive about it," Hai says. "I'm not trying to be mean. I'm not trying to be malicious. It's just what needs to be done, and we need to do this for this win."

Leading isn't all about having a loud voice © Red Bull Content Pool

Passing the torch

The problem is that while there are a lot of teams that can benefit from leadership, the number of people suited for the role tends to be far smaller than people think. Hai and Cloud9 played this drama out a couple times as he tried to step down from the LCS roster. Returning to the example of the Jungian archetypes, Hai argues that League of Legends and MOBAs in general probably draw more heavily from some archetypes than others.

"When you're playing a role on a team, I don't think there are four archetypes, necessarily," he says. "On many teams they don't have all four personalities. I think many teams are full of lovers and kings and wizards … but not many warriors. There aren't many kings, and hardly any warriors, but there are a lot of wizards and lovers who play the game. In a team, three or four people might map to the same archetype."

It's one of the reasons that so many teams struggle during a leadership transition. Unlike simply swapping one skilled player out for another, leadership roles involve intangibles that are hard to identify. It's one reason it took Cloud9 a long time to move on from Hai.

"I think when I stepped down, they lost a leader. They lost that really strong voice. Even if the things I was saying weren't always correct, I said it confidently. And they would trust me on that. And when I stepped down, they didn't have someone who could fulfill that voice. Even if that player was just as good as me, or just as competent at the role, they lost a voice. And that's something that every team needs," he says.

But maybe that's too much pressure to put on one person, Hai points out. The important thing is that a team have an ability to listen and collaborate, and take direction when it is needed. That process doesn't always have to be hierarchical.

"Whether it's a collective voice of all five people putting power forward together, or whether it's just one strong powerful voice that people listen to, a team needs one of those."

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