WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
This past week, I binge-watched all nine episodes of the “Squid Game.” It’s a disturbing, yet intriguing dystopian Korean series about a murderous tournament of children's games, where contestants dealing with insurmountable debts play for the chance to win $38 million. The winner becomes wealthy beyond their imagination, while the losers are eliminated. The current No. 1 show worldwide on Netflix is on track to become the platform’s most-watched series ever.
The power of this film is in the story of the characters, how they navigate through each challenge and the relationships they forge throughout the games. It’s also in the way the show taps into the sentiments of the moment. This movie feels eerily familiar, as we live through what sometimes feels like it could be a dystopian universe, pushing us to find new ways to manage amid evolving chaos. As I re-watched my favorite episodes over the weekend, I noticed how each game teaches us important lessons about relationships and leading through challenging times.
In life, you’ll come across different people and situations that will help you develop and grow as a person, shaping the way you see the world around you and determining the type of leader you’ll become. That leadership is tested when facing challenges. In stressful circumstances, it’s completely understandable for your team members to become disorganized, lose focus and lack motivation. It makes sense, especially if the crisis causes them to worry about their health, the well-being of their families and their job security. Your job as an effective leader is to use empathy to create direct, transparent communication with your teams and establish clear norms and values that dictate how they spend their time.
So, what does the Squid Game teach us about teamwork and leadership? Let’s explore these lessons through the games themself.
The first game the contestants play is red light, green light, where a giant schoolgirl robot doll tries to catch players moving during the game. If you get caught moving on the red light, you’re eliminated (i.e., killed). Sang-Woo (#218) learns quickly the key to winning the game is to move stealthy behind the person in front of you and to keep moving (the game is on a timer). He passes this knowledge on to Gi-Hun (#456), who frozen in fear, finally gets motivated to get up and move. During a crisis, a leader offers solutions and a path forward. Crisis calls on you to quickly assess the situation and make decisions that will guide your team, even when in chaotic environments. Why? Because chaos offers opportunities to those who are prepared and forces the unprepared to crumble.
In the honeycomb game, players are armed with only a sewing needle to carve out a candy shape without breaking it. Under pressure and running out of time, Gi-Hun (#456) eventually figures out that licking the back of the candy helps release the shape. Seeing this, the contestants around him follow suit. The lesson here is to exercise patience, but also think quickly on your feet. Show leadership, and others will follow.
In the game of tug of war, our favorite characters face defeat. Oh Il-nam (#001) coaches the team on how to win, stating, “All you need is a good strategy, combined with good teamwork.” When building teams, having a good leader is vital. You also need to have someone strong and dependable to serve as the anchor of a ship. Then, it’s all about how you arrange your team, with each member playing an important role in helping to secure a win. Having this strategy in place was critical to their success. And this, my friends, is an important lesson to absorb as we head into RFP and planning season.
Probably one of the most heartbreaking episodes is when the contestants play the game of marbles, where players negotiate which games they play, throwing skill or strength out the window and replacing them with nasty displays of manipulation and peer pressure. This is a mental battle of self-preservation that brings out the best or the worst versions of the contestants. While this episode has many teachable moments, the one that stands out to me is the connection between Sae-byeok (#067) and Ji-yeong (#240). As humans, we are conditioned to connect, and that means sharing the good with the bad. As Sae-byeok opens up about her experiences escaping from North Korea with her family, her story moves Ji-yeong, who makes the ultimate sacrifice in the games to give Sae-byeok a chance to one day reunite with her family. The lesson here is that it’s OK to share your challenges with your team. It makes you human, and people can relate to that. Being real with your team in the face of uncertainty makes you more trustworthy. And being as open as possible with your team will foster greater connection.
In one of the most unnerving games, the glass steppingstone, contestants must cross a bridge of glass panels, not knowing which one will support their weight or which ones will shatter. When faced with danger, the players depend on the mistakes of others to help guide their next step. The lesson here is to observe, learn from mistakes and apply those learnings to adapt, evolve and chart a clear path forward.
Now really, at this point, you should stop reading if you don’t want the ending revealed…
As the tournament finale and most physically aggressive game in the lineup, the Squid Game is a fight to the death. The remaining two players have one last opportunity to forfeit the game and walk away from the prize fund. Instead, Sang-Woo (#218) sacrifices himself to allow Seong Gi-Hun (#456) to walk away as the winner of the games. Sang-Woo's realization at the end shows us that self-awareness is critical for leadership. The better you understand yourself and recognize your own strengths, and most importantly weaknesses, the more effective you can be as a leader.
As the show comes to its conclusion, Il-nam (#001) summons Gi-Hun (#456) for one final game. The final bet is over a drunk man who has passed out in the snow. Il-nam asks Gi-Hun to bet on whether he believes someone will save the man from freezing to death in the snow before midnight. It’s the age-old exploration of our humanity. While Il-nam is doubtful, Gi-Hun believes that someone will help the man. He wins the bet, with the police pulling over to help the drunken man.
The movie ends with Gi-Hun embracing a new lease on life as he fulfils his promises to some of the players in the game. A cliffhanger leaves things open to a potential second season.
For us, we face the challenge of recovery and how to lead ourselves, our people and our organizations. So, this is it. I’ll give you one last chance to choose… will you go back to living your old lives, or will you act and seize the opportunity being offered here?
Demar is our senior vice president of Marketing + Business Development and is responsible for showcasing the agency's culture, thought leadership and award-winning work.