Leadership Lessons Learned from a Vegas Casino

In 1993, the MGM Grand Las Vegas hotel opened to a TON of international fanfare.  One of the first destination resorts designed to attract families to the Vegas strip, the MGM Grand was the largest hotel in the world at the time of its grand opening.  Emerald green glass plates covered the outside of the building and guests could follow a yellow-brick road to a Wizard of Oz attraction complete with cornfields, haunted forests and animatronic versions of Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scare Crow and the Wicked Witch of the West.

Topping off the Wizard of Oz theme — and playing off MGM’s Leo the Lion logo — the hotel’s planners designed a main entrance of almost ridiculous proportions:  Patrons walked straight through the mouth of a multi-story golden lion upon arrival at the casino.

It wasn’t long, however, until the hotel’s owners realized that they’d made a horrible mistake:  They’d inadvertently alienated Chinese gamblers — a group that bring MILLIONS of dollars to Vegas every year during the Chinese New Year — who believe that walking through the mouth of a beast brings bad luck.  Afraid of tempting fate and losing their shirts at the hotel’s casinos, Chinese gamblers stayed away from the Grand, pushing the business to the brink of bankruptcy until they replaced their trademark “mouth of the lion” entrance in 1996.

Stew in THAT mistake for a minute, would you?

The designers of a multi-million dollar property pushed forward with their plans without thinking about the needs, wants and interests of some of their most important customers.  The hotel wasted time and money on a idea that seemed perfect on paper, but that ignored the realities of the environment that they were working in.  Instead of trying to create a hotel that satisfied customers, they created a hotel that satisfied themselves and simultaneously alienated the very people that their business depended on.  After losing social and financial capital, they were forced back to the drawing board just three short years after opening.

Can you see the leadership lesson in the story of the Grand?

Driving successful change efforts depends on developing plans that resonate with YOUR core customers, too.  Listening to students, parents, teachers and community leaders when reimagining what learning spaces are going to look like is essential simply because sustainable change inevitably depends on the support of the people that you are trying to serve.  The best change agents recognize that driving organizations forward depends on more than identifying good ideas.  Instead, driving organizations forward depends on identifying good ideas that key stakeholders are likely to embrace.

Any of this make sense?


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  • Brian Ridpath

    Business does get some things right.

    The main difference between the Las Vegas property owners and the educational establishment is that three years after realizing their horrible mistake, the property owners set about to please and cooperate with their customers and they fixed the error. The educational establishment in the U.S. still believes that standards and testing will make the education of students better and more complete (IE: Commom Core, No Child Left Behind, the problem solving movement of the late 80’s and early 90’s, New Math, A Nation at Risk, merit pay, etc.). There are many studies to document the numerous failures and brief small successes of each new thing that comes down the pipe. There have been too many top down edicts that looked so good on paper but have failed in reality. It is really too bad that the basics of a good education continue to be muddled by over-reaching state and national governments. 

    Bill, the casino fixed their errors – this shows us at least one thing that business could teach education. Many teachers know this because they work in the same way to get better and serve their students at the highest level of which they are capable. I wish teachers and students had more input into the process and did not have to struggle under the misguided notions of the political classes (local, state and federal).

    Thanks for letting me rant.

    • billferriter

      It’s definitely a struggle, Brian.

      I’m with you, Brian, largely because I’m on the receiving end of every half-baked lion-mouthed plan that is hatched in an attempt to improve schools – and you are right:  Teachers and students have little (if any) real control over what happens in our buildings.  We are expected to implement plans — not to imagine something better for our kids.  

      Not sure how that changes given how little people seem to understand about what really drives action in schools.  Until stakeholders insist that control be returned to those closest to the classroom, I’m skeptical that I’ll ever see a time when teachers are making the kinds of important choices that can improve schools on behalf of children.

      Maybe that’s pessimism.  More likely, it’s realism.



      • BriannaCrowley

        Lion-mouthed Improvement Plans


        As always, I was nodding in agreement even as you were pushing my thinking about edpolicy and my classroom. I too have watched poorly implemented plans come and go–and that’s from only 7 years in the classroom! I’ve been through one training after another, each time thinking “yep, wonder if there will actually be any accountability or follow-through for this one.” 

        I’m also thinking about the world outside of education and this IDEO designer post about innovating. Most of it can be applied to our conversation here–“I can’t listen to everyone” and “I can’t imitate forever” being the two that ring closest to the educational cycle. Yet, I’m also wondering: What’s the difference between your point about continuous failed attempts and the innovation cycle of try–> fail –> try –> fail –> try —> succeed. When applied to education what is the difference between the tired cycles of “silver bullets” (that somehow rust all-too-quickly) and embracing failure to learn from it and succeed? I sense there is a deep difference, but I’d love to hash that out. 

        Also, to promote more conversation, I cross-posted this to GOOD.is. 

  • JillcLuby

    Does Business and Education Mix?

    I am a long time resident of Las Vegas, so I was able to watched the change with the MGM.  During that time, there was an uproar in the Valley because they did not think that the MGM should make the change to appease foreigners.  Local people truly believed that the idea in itself was worth it.  I admit, I truly enjoyed walking into the MGM and the Wizard of Oz theme was magical.  So my question is, do you think they went wrong because of a lack of planning, or did they just not realize the impact of Chinese gamblers?  Did they not think about the needs and wants of their customers, or did they consider them and assume that they would not be impacted by one group not getting what they needed? 

    I see the leadership lesson in the story.  I wish that every answer had a clear cut solution.  Often leaders are expected to predict the impact of their decisions.  Business owners do this every day in the business world.  I had the opportunity to leave teaching for a few years and manage a general contracting company.  In that world, I made proposals and submitted bids based on how much of a profit I was expecting.  If a project came in under cost, I was extremely happy.  Often, they came in over cost, and I would not receive as high of a profit, if any.  Taking a business model into education sounds like a reasonable option.  Teachers who produce a higher quality product, AKA education, should be rewarded more than those who continuously come in with lower test scores. 

    I currently teach at a charter school in Las Vegas, and I have had the opportunity to see how challenging it is to mix the business world with the education world.  Giving teachers the control will not solve the solution until we train them on how to use that power.  I feel very empowered to make meaningful changes in my classroom that will benefit my students.  I also feel the stress and burden that comes along with making changes that fit all of the needs of all of my students. 

    I will give you an example.  We have the opportunity to have students bring their own electronic devices to school to use for instruction.  This has not been something I have done in the past.  I am having to predict the benefit verses the risk and trust that I am correct in that the payoff will be that students are better prepared to function in an ever evolving electronic world.  Does this benefit all of my students?  I would say no.  There are some who cannot afford a device, so although it is optional, it will dramatically impact their ease of access to an electronic device.  Since I have no idea three weeks into the school year, who can and who cannot afford a device, I am risking that being a majority of the class.  I am possibly making the same assumption that MGM did.  I could possibly have a large gap between those students who do and who do not have devices.  The opposite is also possible.  I could have a class that is empowered to participate in more differentiated learning and support through the use of electronics.  I could potentially have a class that is being prepared for their future through meaningful activities.  I can see how my decision will have an impact on my students.  Since I can see the benefits outweighing the negatives, I am going forward with the implementation of the devices.  I will monitor the effect, but there is no way to guarantee my success before I start.

    Teachers have not been taught to see the impact of the bigger picture.  Educators often get caught up in how amazing an idea, such as walking through a lion head, would be.  The bigger picture can often become very unclear based on where you are standing.  


  • Taya Tayler

    Thank you Bill Ferriter for

    Thank you Bill Ferriter for an amazing article,I was a bout to order essay online and get my best assignment help,When I got Leadership Lessons Learned from Vegas Casino,This was an exceptional article to read as well I have gain some extraordinary information from it,