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I must have been 7 or 8 when my aunt Goo Tai taught me the card game, Dragon. Goo Tai and her family lived on a pear farm in the Delta region just south of Sacramento. The Sacramento River was the source of the water that irrigated the pear orchards. The farms in the Delta region were created by the dikes constructed along the Sacramento River, which channeled the waters of the river around the rich soil of the valley. The nearest town to my aunt Goo Tai’s farm was the historic Chinese community of Locke. Like many of the Chinese families in the region, Goo Tai’s husband, Goo Deong, managed the farm for an Italian family. Every summer, migrant Filipino men picked the pears which were then transported by uncle Goo Deong to the canneries in Locke and Isleton. Often I rode the truck with him to Locke where I was treated to an ice cream cone. I loved my summers on the farm, playing with my cousins Aimee, Doris, Norman, and Rosalyn, all of whom were older than me. From an early age, my parents had me spend my summers on the farm for health reasons. Getting me out of the summer fog in San Francisco and placing me on the farm where I could enjoy the sunshine and warmth of the Sacramento valley was amazingly therapeutic.

Once I learned the game, Goo Tai and I would play for hours at a time. A game for 2 players, we sat on stools facing each other, playing the game on a rickety card table. In time, I became so proficient at the game that I won most of the time. The rules of the game were quite simple. All 52 cards of the deck are dealt. In the beginning, the most difficult thing about the game was how to hold all 26 cards in my little hands. The object of the game was to be the first to get rid of all the cards in your hand.

The game begins by laying down on the table all the 7’s. Randomly dealt, if you are fortunate enough to have any of the 7’s, you begin the game at an advantage. Taking turns, you place your cards down following suit and according to the numerical sequence opened to you. With the 7’s laid out in a line on the middle of the table, the higher number cards are played in sequence on one side, from 8 to King; and the lower number cards are played on the opposite side, from 6 to Ace. You can play your cards only where openings are available to you. If there are no available openings when it is your turn, you pass. Passing is not desirable because it means a lost opportunity to get rid of a card. The object of the game is to get rid of all your cards before your opponent. A pass means giving your opponent the advantage of gaining a step on you.

The key strategy is to seize as much control as possible with every move, yours and your opponent’s. To do that, you have to know where every card is, not a difficult task because your opponent has all the cards that you don’t have in your hand. To gain the upper hand, you play your cards carefully and strategically in order to achieve a point in the game where your opponent’s moves are dictated by what you make available. At that point, you can block your opponent from playing her cards, forcing him to pass. With every pass, you enhance your advantage of getting rid of your cards ahead of your opponent.

What has fascinated me over the years is what this simple card game has taught me about leadership. Knowing where all the cards are and ultimately being able to manage and dictate the flow of the cards reminds me of Ronald Heifetz’ concept of the “view from the balcony.” It is about keeping the big picture in mind and view so that you are able to manage how and when things happen. It is critical to have a strategic plan, to be in possession of the “big picture” view from the balcony (knowing where all the cards are). But your execution is important too. You don’t want to waste your strategic advantage of the view from the balcony with sloppy execution. As leader, you manage the execution (how the cards are played). You teach, equip and empower accordingly (creating space for folks to play their cards). And at times you have to prevent people from doing something that compromises the strategic plan (directing the cards only to where the openings are). You have to know when to be direct and assertive; and when to be patient, slowing things down, regrouping, and redirecting (changing suit). There are times when it is necessary to let your people learn from their mistakes, rather than managing them too tightly and rigidly, even if it means being less efficient and not achieving your goal on time (deciding which suit and sequence to play).

The power that is required for this kind of leadership is huge; and therefore demands character, integrity and responsibility. It goes without saying that once you gain this much power and control, you can exploit and abuse your people with it. I have learned that when your congregation has been empowered to share the “view from the balcony” and is party to the shaping of the strategic plan, they will trust your leadership even during the difficult times of failure and redirection. In the end, when the congregation celebrates the accomplishment (winning the game) as their achievement and you, the leader, are not the focus, then you have done your job.

5 thoughts on “Dragon”

  1. From the picture of the cards, I thought Dragon might be like Solitaire; so for the first time in multi-decades I put a deck of cards in my hands. From your description of how you felt about your 7-8 yr. old hands holding the cards, I found that my hand dexterity could do with a lot of improvement exercises. As you described, it soon becomes obvious who has which cards, and going for quick hand-eye coordination, memory and speed would be natural progressive goals. What fun! Better than just exercising the pinkies to txt messages.

  2. Am reminded of old gymnasiums or dance halls and dances. How a person watching from the balcony (who might be there alone after taking a break to the rest room or out for a cigarette) has a whole different perspective on the event. Seeing patterns of movement, interactions, what people part of the popular cluster, and those who are wall flowers. Being up in the balcony able to see that and not be on the ground floor caught up in the worry or delight of the moment while trying to adapt to a new dance partner, wondering if there will be more than this one dance, how close the couple might be toward the end of the night, or how to get away from this creepy or awkward or smelly dance partner. It is not that the person in the balcony is any more spiritual or has any extra sensory perception just because of being in the balcony (although such aptitudes for a pastor might be helpful if they were not caught up in their own arrogance or put on a pedestal). I guess all congregants or other people can learn to take time for both balcony and in the midst of the dance floor circus.

    BUT THE THING THAT FIRST CAME TO MIND IN READING YOUR PIECE AND THAT I WANTED TO REACT TO is that I wondered if you also knew how to play Nerts. If not I could teach it too you. The game is played by perhaps 2-6 people each with their own deck of cards. Wild, addicting. It is a little harder, or perhaps much harder now than when I first learned it. My older eyes don’t track the play as well, and my mental clarity and hand dexterity means I cannot react as well as some young ones. And yet, recently, I had about four of us (me a septuagenarian and the others from about 18 to 25), and I won the game several times.

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