Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Tetris

A Reel Leadership Article

My latest book, Reel Leadership, is now available on Amazon. If you love movies and leadership, you will love this book.

Set during the 1980s, Tetris tells the real-life story of the race to license and patent the addictive video game. Tetris was created by Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov). The movie is based on true events and will keep you on the edge of your seat.

When video game designer and founder of Bullet-Proof software Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) was at CES (Consumer Electronic Expo) trying to sell his game, no one was paying attention. Even his salesperson left his booth to marvel over a new video game being displayed by Robert Stein (Toby Jones).

That game? TETRIS.

Man in a brown suit. Dark hair. Sitting in a chair with Tetris pieces falling around him.

Taron Egerton in Tetris

Henk walks over to the booth to discover his salesperson playing the game. He’s frustrated until he begins to play. Then it became the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.

Thus, the race to get the rights to Tetris begins. It’s a fascinating story. One most people don’t know about. But I highly recommend watching and studying Tetris, as you’ll walk away with new insights.

That’s what we’re going to do here today. We’re taking a deep look into the leadership lessons from Tetris and what you can do to become a better leader.

Quotes And Leadership Lessons From Tetris

1. Henk Rogers:

But this is not an excuse. It’s an opportunity.

Henk was the founder of Bullet-Proof software. He’d brought his poorly received game, GO, to the expo to drum up business. It didn’t work. 

Instead, Henk could see what he called the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. That was the game Tetris on display.

He demoed the game and fell in love. He saw Tetris for what it was: an opportunity to change the gaming world.

We can see failure or a lack of interest as an excuse. As a way to not get the job done.

What if, instead, it’s an opportunity? You experienced something along the way that changed the way you do business or brought in a client that otherwise would have been lost?

Not all failed experiences are failures. They’re stepping stones to the next level.

2. Don’t give up:

Henk had to return to the bank that lent him money for GO. He approached Eddie (Rick Yune), the bank manager, to discuss the next steps.

Eddie was hesitant to help Henk. Henk had already lost the money they’d lent him.

However, Henk wouldn’t be sidelined. He knew what he saw, he believed in it, and he gave a clear vision for what he was going to do next. Henk was going to secure the rights to sell Tetris in Japan.

He wasn’t about to give up.

When we hit roadblocks, it can be easy to give up. To quit. To move on…

If we do that, breakthrough doesn’t happen. We fail to see what is on the other side of struggle.

Don’t give up. Keep pushing forward. Find a way through. 

3. Be persistent:

Robert Stein of Andromeda Software saw Tetris played and also fell in love with it. He wanted to license the game with worldwide rights.

He decided to be persistent. He kept faxing the Russians, asking them to allow him to sell the game. Those receiving the faxes looked at the faxes as Stein wasting their paper.

Eventually, after many faxes, someone in the offices got tired. They decided they would license the rights to Tetris to Stein.

Wow! Could you imagine being Stein? You have the persistence to keep going despite denial after denial. Or, maybe worse, continued silence.

You’re persistent, though. You keep pushing. You keep asking. You stay at the front of their mind.

They give in. They agree to what you’re asking.

That’s what persistence does. It makes a way when it looks like there’s no way. 

Be persistent.

4. Henk Rogers:

Partners make us great. That’s why Mario has Luigi. That’s why Zelda has Link.

Hiroshi Yamauchi (Togo Igawa) was the third president of the video game giant Nintendo. Henk made his way to the Nintendo headquarters and secured a meeting with Yamauchi.

During their meeting, Yamauchi told Henk that Nintendo doesn’t partner with other companies. Henk knew this wasn’t true. Nintendo would regularly, though not commonly, partner with other companies.

Henk then brings up great partnerships in the video game industry. Mario and Luigi… then there’s Zelda and Link.

His words made an impression on Yamauchi. He got a deal.

What Henk said rings true. Partnerships make us great. They allow us to do things that we wouldn’t be able to do through our own power or in the limited capacity of our organization.

Partnerships do the following:

  • Bring in extra capital
  • Exchanges talents between parties
  • Gives balance
  • Levels up the skills of those in the organizations

Don’t be afraid to partner up. Partnerships are what make us great.

5. Suggest changes:

Henk was flown to the US Nintendo headquarters in Seattle. There, he had to sign an NDA. He was about to be shown something mindblowing.

The new Nintendo Gameboy, a portable handheld gaming system, was being developed. 

The employees shows him a Mario game that would be packaged with the handheld game system. Henk saw an opportunity. Instead of packaging Mario (their flagship character), Henk suggests they pack Tetris with the game system upon release.

There was skepticism until Henk pulled out a demo of Tetris, plugged it in via cables, and allowed the employees to test the game. They were hooked.

What’s been proposed doesn’t have to be. At least not in the entirety of its initial pitch. 

Look at what’s been proposed. What’s good? What’s bad? What’s okay? What could be?

Suggest changes based on what you see. You have insights that can change the direction of the project. 

Don’t be afraid to suggest change.

6. Beware who you partner with:

Earlier, I mentioned that partnerships are good. However, they can go bad as well. They did for Henk.

Stein went behind Henk’s back during one of the transactions. He chose to sell Atari the rights to Tetris for handheld consoles. This meant Nintendo wouldn’t be able to sell Tetris with the Gameboy.

This upset Nintendo, Henk, and Henk’s business partners at Mirrorsoft. Mirrorsoft was a British gaming company run by Robert Maxwell (Roger Allam), with his son Kevin Maxwell (Anthony Boyle) helping with the company.

The partnership with Stein became twisted, tangled, and tension-filled after Stein made the backdoor deal. 

However, these partnerships were even more twisted when Robert made a deal with USSR politician Valentin Trifonov (Igor Grabuzov) for the rights to the game.

Partners are great as long as the people you’re partnering with are upstanding. Do your due diligence before entering into partnerships with others.

Make sure they’re on the up and up, do what they say, and will follow through. If not, break the partnership and leave with your dignity intact.

7. Alexey Pajitnov: 

Life is hard. We deserve our little celebrations.

Henk made his way into Alexey’s life through frequent interactions. He even got an invite into Alexey’s home, where Henk met Alexey’s family, though having foreigners in your home in the USSR was against the law.

This didn’t stop Henk. He’s persistent, right?

While in Alexey’s apartment, the two begin to talk about Tetris. Alexey takes Henk to his lab, where they start to tinker with the game. They added multi-line disappearances, the S-line shape, and more.

They celebrated these additions because life is hard. They had a good time and made progress. It was worth celebrating.

What little celebrations are you having in your organization? There are many things you can celebrate or do to celebrate. Consider celebrating the following:

  • Your next sale, no matter how big or small
  • The new hire
  • Someone’s 10th anniversary
  • A new customer

Leadership is hard. Have little celebrations to keep you going.

8. Consider royalties:

Nikolai Belikov (Oleg Shtefanko) was vice president of the Soviet ELORG (Elektronorgtechnica). ELORG was a state-owned organization with a monopoly over the import and export of computer support and hardware and software in the Soviet Union.

Belikov was the man Henk had dealt with. Henk offered ELORG and Belikov $25,000 plus 25 cents per unit sold. This didn’t seem like much but the royalties would add up quickly if Henk’s belief in Tetris proved true. 

People expected Tetris to sell one million copies ($250,000 in royalties). Henk expected to sell 25 million copies (6.25 million dollars in royalties).

Royalties can be overlooked in an effort to get the most out of the product or service you’re selling. You think you’ll make bank in a quick transaction.

Consider the slow burn of royalties or commissions. Look for ways to reduce an up-front cost for the initial investment and consider offering royalties or obtaining royalties.

Royalties will keep coming in, and those one-time payments will stop after the first payment.

9. Don’t miss the truly important things in life:

Henk is beating his corded phone (remember those?) on his kitchen countertop. He’d just received a fax that he’d lost the contract for Tetris (he eventually gets it back). 

His wife, Akemi (Ayane Nagabuchi), walks in with their daughter. She sees his frustration, but she’s also frustrated. 

Henk had missed an important event in his daughter’s life. He’d miss seeing her perform.

This confused Henk. He’d just lost a multi-million dollar contract, and his wife was frustrated over missing a concert. Henk had trouble seeing how important this event was to Akemi and his daughter. 

Beware of missing out on the important things in life. Family events, social events, special moments. They can all be missed in a push to be successful.


Are you truly successful if you lack friends? If your family leaves you? If you’re alone.

No… You’re not. So pay attention to the important things in life.

10. No one is above the law:

Sasha (Sofya Lebedeva) was a government agent who had played Henk. She pretended to be a translator to help him communicate in the USSR. Come to find out, she’s a government agent sent to spy on him. In the end, she turns out to be a good person.

She is sent by Mikhail Gorbachev (Matthew Marsh) to arrest Trifonov for trying to benefit from the sale of Tetris. Sasha tells Trifonov that he broke the law. Trifonov’s response is the classic response of a narcissist… He said I AM THE LAW

He believed he was above the consequences of his actions. Many leaders believe the same thing.

Let me tell you… No one is above the law. No one is above what’s right or wrong. 

If you do wrong, you will be caught. You will face the consequences. 

Make sure you’re doing right.

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