Ender’s Game: Lessons in Transformational Leadership - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Ender’s Game: Lessons in Transformational Leadership

Human life is threatened by the anticipation of a war with the “buggers,” a technologically advanced, insect-like species that have previously threatened to annihilate the Earth.  Population control on Earth is strictly enforced.  People do not have freedom to practice religion.  There is extensive government spying into the private lives of young children.  The International Fleet asks children to leave their parents and serve as soldiers, just as they are entering school.  Out of this society has emerged Ender Wiggin, a compelling leader who continues to speak to future generations.


The New York Times bestseller list for mass-market paperbacks.

Ender’s Game has received some of the highest honors for science fiction writing and is currently number one on The New York Times bestseller list for mass-market paperbacks.  First published by Orson Scott Card in 1985, Ender’s Game is an endearing novel with widespread appeal and has been used as a teaching tool in both military academies and universities (Knapp, 2013).  Ender’s Game offers lessons in the wide range of competencies that make up transformational leadership as well as co-constructing leadership with followers to create teams that are able to work toward a goal with a unified purpose.

Transformational leaders are able to demonstrate a broad constellation of skills that are within the realm of emotional intelligence.  These leaders demonstrate personal competencies in self-awareness and self-management as well as the ability to manage relationships with others through social and organizational awareness (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005).  They demonstrate an understanding of their strengths and weaknesses; they are self-motivated and empathetic to others around them; and they demonstrate the social skills to manage relationships with others and to navigate the dynamics of their organizational environment (Goleman, 2004).

More importantly, Ender demonstrates the enduring truth about leadership (Kouzes & Posner, 2011).  Leadership is not the product of an environment; leaders emerge from every type of society.  Ender lived under strict societal controls and came of age in the challenging environment of military school.  Leadership is not who you are.  Ender was a “third,” the youngest of three children, despite a two-child policy.  Leadership is not about possessing abilities like intelligence and good ideas (Goleman, 2004).  Ender is just one a number of students selected by the International Fleet that share these same qualities.  Leadership lies within all of us (Kouzes & Posner, 2011).  Ender demonstrates this through his actions.  Through Ender, we learn about the growth, development and emergence of a transformational leader.

Against a Prototype

Group leaders are chosen by their followers, according to social identity theory, and in environments like the Battle School where group identity is strong and group cohesion is high, an individual who is most prototypical, or representative, of the group is often selected as the leader (Stafsudd, 2004 in Jackson & Parry, 2011).  Individuals—like Ender who was smaller and younger than the other students who advanced to a particular stage at school at specific ages—can find it difficult to attain leadership status when they differ markedly from the prototype (Stafsudd, 2004 in Jackson & Parry, 2011).  Ender quickly found that Bernard had formed a clique which excluded him and he needed to overcome the challenge of social exclusion and work against prototypical norms for Battle School leaders.

Resonant leaders are mindful and self-aware of their own feelings and strengths as well as those of others around them (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005).  Ender was aware of the potent mixture of emotions as he enters Battle School, but he also was armed with an accurate perception of his own strengths.  Ender came to the Battle School knowing that he could break the code of computer games, and this self-assessment enabled him to challenge older, higher-ranking boys to a game—and then win against them—which helped Ender to establish a reputation.

Sharing Strengths, Learning from Others

Ender made strategic use of his skills to break the clique the excluded him.  He knew that he had a talent for hacking into computer systems and quickly figured out how to send messages under the name of a new user (i.e., “God”).  The message made fun of the clique leader and weakened the strength of the clique by attracting some of the followers to his side.  More importantly, he used his strengths in mutually beneficial ways to build bonds between himself and others.  Ender offered to give Alai the secrets to his security system after Alai messed with another student’s files and knew the student was out to get him.  Ender’s empathy and offer to use his computer hacking talents to assist with Alai’s plight built a lasting bond between them.

Although Ender lacked self-confidence initially in comparison to other youth, he had enough self-confidence to admit to others what he didn’t know—and wanted to learn (Kouzes & Posner, 2011).  Ender initially presented himself to Dink Meeker, platoon leader of the Rat army, as “pretty inexperienced” although Ender could have highlighted the many emerging skills he possessed.  Ender had the self-confidence to admit that he didn’t have extensive knowledge of the battle game, but he wanted to learn (Kouzes & Posner, 2011).  Dink was able to build Ender’s self-confidence through honest, straightforward feedback on Ender’s emerging strengths as well as his weaknesses in the battle game.  By telling Ender that he believed in him, Dink had a powerful effect on Ender’s self-confidence.  Ender possessed the mark of an emerging leader in his ability to attract a mentor that could change his life (Bennis, 2004).


Challenge is a test of leadership.

Challenge is a test of leadership (Kouzes & Posner, 2011).  Ender was able to use challenge as an opportunity to build his skills—and then he used his skills to benefit others (Kouzes & Posner, 2011).

Bonzo stymied Ender’s growth and development by refusing to let Ender have any meaningful role with his platoon in the battle game.  Ender was able to turn a huge disadvantage early in his career into an advantage by developing his skills in observation and analysis and using this to foster his own growth and development and then to increase the effectiveness of those around him.

Ender observes that the “enemy’s gate is down” which defies gravity and opens up his thinking to greater understanding of the realm of the battlefield—a key observation that he was able to leverage and teach to others, increasing the effectiveness of his entire platoon.

For leaders, learning is a continual process as they engage in an ongoing process intentional change improve their skills and build on strengths (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005; Kouzes & Posner, 2011).  In a pivotal moment, Ender was told that he was “dumb as a thumb” and an insubordinate lone ranger in battle, although he had won the battle for the army (Card, 1991, p. 104).  Ender had the equanimity to accept this feedback as a gift, which propelled him to change and improve as he learned the value of teamwork.

Clarity of values also gave Ender the self-confidence to stand up for his principles (Kouzes & Posner, 2011), and Ender appropriately pushed back at the order of platoon leader Rose de Nose not to use his desk to complete homework, which Ender felt was unreasonable.  Ender sized up the weakness of the leader, and knew that his superior was not trained in personal combat and wasn’t capable of hurting Ender if he voiced his beliefs.  Ender had the self-confidence to act on his principles, rather than stepping away from his values and going along with the status quo (p. 118), making him an attractive—and credible—leader that others can turn to.

As Ender’s self-confidence increased, he was able to demonstrate leadership by increasing his follower’s sense of self-confidence, self-determination and personal effectiveness (Kouzes & Posner, 2011, p. 73).  As Ender was able to reject the taunts of the older boys, he taught the younger boys a strategy for repelling the self-destructive properties of these verbal stones by having them recite the abusive words so loudly that they lost their emotional sting.

Just as effective leaders must be aware of the needs of those around them, they must also be aware of their own needs and develop strategies for self-renewal so that they can sustain themselves over long periods of power stress and self-sacrifice (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005).  While Ender was keenly aware of the physical and emotional needs of his team, he lacked self-awareness to assess his own needs.  At several points in time, Ender drove himself to the point of psychological burnout and physical exhaustion.


Ender gave his all in every battle.

Ender consistently gave his all in every battle game practice session, and he gave up opportunities for rest and relaxation in favor of scheduling additional practice sessions with children from other platoons, maintaining a physically demanding schedule that few others could match.  Colonel Hyrum Graff, director of primary training at Battle School, consistently advanced Ender early from one stage of Battle School to the next, which created tremendous physical pressures of less preparation and psychological pressures of lack of camaraderie.

Like many in military settings, Ender realistically perceived that he did not have the same degree of control over his physical well-being.  However, Ender came close to becoming a “success failure” (Mintzberg, 2009) as his personal strengths in his incredible drive and motivation to win became his greatest liability.  Like many leaders, he was motivated and ambitious, but he also was blind to his limitations.  The Battle School leaders also played a large role in pushing him to the outer limits of his physical, mental and emotional endurance in the war against the buggers.  Ender helped the International Fleet win the war, and then slipped into a state of extreme exhaustion and apathy in a near vegetative state (p. 301).  Ender had been caught up in a cycle of self-sacrifice, but he was finally successful in renewing himself, pulling himself out of his emotionally drained, physically exhausted state as his own incredible survival strength that won out.

Building Partnerships with Followers

Although there have been many prominent mercurial leaders, such as Steve Jobs, a leader’s emotional self-control, transparency, adaptability and authenticity strongly influence relationships with others (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005, p. 27).  Leaders who lack self-management, social awareness and relationship management spread dissonance among those they lead and compromise their credibility and effectiveness (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005).

Military environments, in particular, demand a high level of emotional control from their leaders, and even before entering Battle School, Peter was an unlikely ally in teaching Ender to achieve self-control.  In dealing with Peter’s constant bullying, threats, and emotional abuse over the years, it would be easy for Ender to respond with anger.  However, Ender has come to realize that this is not the best way to respond because Peter is a physically bigger, more cunning enemy with a hot anger to exact revenge.


Ender questions the rules at Battle School.

At the Battle School, Ender pushes back appropriately and questions the rules, but never impulsively breaks rules, disobeys or rebels.  Ender does have a breaking point, particularly in situations that go against his values of fairness and justice.  Ender perceived that his transfer to Salamander army was unfair and begins to cry, an emotional display that goes against the culture of the school.

Much later as a commander, Ender moves beyond tears.  After an emotionally draining fight with Bonzo who sought to kill him and being asked to take on two armies in battle at once—Griffen and Tiger—Ender was unable to manage the crisis effectively (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005).  He gave in to exhaustion, fear and anger with a defensive, emotional outburst and complained to authority figures about the injustice and unfairness of the situation.  Ender’s followers, however, perceive the values that underlie Ender’s behavior.

In contrast, other youth lose emotional control due to changing group dynamics and loss of stature.  During their first introduction to the Battle Room, Bernard shows a lack of emotional control which eventually cost him his leadership position.  When it came time to choose their launch leader, Alai was selected and Bernard sulked, angry at the changing leadership dynamics.  Although Petra is similar to Ender in demonstrating a strength of emotional control in dealing with the ongoing bullying due to gender differences and abuse from authority, she demonstrates a stunning lack of emotional control—and grace—at the loss of stature when she loses to Ender in his first battle as a commander.  Petra shows her fury by rejecting Ender for a time, although the bonds of friendship eventually win out.

Old Problems, New Solutions

Leaders engage in an adaptive and active approach to problem-solving, developing fresh approaches to long-standing problems and provide new options for existing issues and they take risks where there is reward and opportunity (Zaleznik, 2004).  Ender demonstrated leadership on the battlefield through his adaptability that allowed him take an active approach in shaping ideas, rather than a reactive approach in responding to problems.  He also demonstrated openness to new ideas and new options, and encouraged others to develop new ideas.  He says to Bean, “I wanted you to try things that nobody has ever tried because they’re stupid.”  (Card, 1991, p. 198).

Ender never discounts ideas—unlike many professionals in business who approach new ideas like a duck hunt, by shooting down one proposed idea after another.  Ender had the mental flexibility to see benefit in the most unlikely maneuvers.  “There may be a time, thought Ender, when this is exactly the strategy I’ll need—forty screaming boys in an unbalancing attack.” (Card, 1991, p. 162).  His iconoclastic approach gives him a battlefield advantage against enemy armies that rely on traditional formations—only rarely does Ender use a traditional maneuver.

Navigating Organizational Currents

Organizational awareness is the ability to read the social and politics of organizations and teams.  It is the ability to be situationally aware and to navigate the currents of an organization (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005).  From the time Ender entered Battle School, he demonstrates the ability to positively influence organizational dynamics by creatively breaking up a clique.  He also shrewdly uses a rule to his advantage—free play is free.  No rule can be made against it.  Bonzo had blocked Ender’s growth and development, refusing to permit him to practice or battle with his own army.  Ender overcame this obstacle by using a rule to his advantage and offering additional practices to launches, placing himself in a self-created leadership position.  Ender never sought leadership as a means to wield authority and power over others, but approached this leadership role as a socially constructed reality with his followers (Jackson & Parry, 2011).  Ender was a credible leader, maintaining a steady practice schedule and sharing new skills and enhancing the abilities of all involved.


, Ender’s lack of social and organizational awareness in misinterpreting and mishandling situations nearly costs him his life.

Off the battlefield, however, Ender’s lack of social and organizational awareness in misinterpreting and mishandling situations nearly costs him his life.   When Ender’s army won against the Salamander army with their worst score, Ender was outraged that it hadn’t been a fair fight.

He challenged his youngest child to state publicly what Salamander army leader Bonzo Madrid should have done to win.  Ender demonstrated a lack of cultural intelligence (Thomas & Inkson, 2004 in Jackson & Parry, 2011) and awareness of how Bonzo’s cultural values would influence his perception of the situation.

Ender violated Bonzo’s sense of Spanish honor in maintaining personal honor and reputation as well as high standards of accomplishment, and Ender destroyed Bonzo’s dignity in his defeat.  All too late, Ender realizes that he had mishandled the situation.

Petra demonstrates organizational awareness in correctly reading the dire situational dynamics and warning Ender of the danger.  Dink suggested a safety strategy and urged Ender never to be alone.  However, Ender continues to misinterpret the situation in naively believing that the teachers would never let anything happen to him, and he unthinkingly puts himself in grave danger by being alone in a secluded place where the disgraced enemy finds him and engages in a fight that turns deadly.

Leading with Empathy and Compassion

Empathy is the bond between leaders and followers, and it is what allowed Ender to truly understand the emotions, perspectives and concerns of both his followers—and his enemy (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005).  Ender instinctively picks on Bean, the smallest and youngest boy, treating Bean just as Ender had been treated initially.  Ender immediately feels regret, but covers it up under the intense pressure of his follower’s initial intense scrutiny of Ender’s first acts as a leader of the Dragon army (Bennis, 2004).  Ender’s self-awareness allows him to move past the mistakes of his superiors and forge his own values as a leader.  Ender vows to watch Bean compassionately, moving beyond a place of merely understanding, to a willingness to act out of concern for Bean’s well-being (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005).  Ender makes a promise to himself that one day Bean would consider Ender a friend and that Bean would excel as a soldier (Card, 1991, p. 168).


Enders Game movie poster.

Bean, who precocious in his knowledge and self-awareness, is contemptuous of Ender’s authority.  The verbal clashes between Bean and Ender characterize the changing dynamics between leaders and followers today due to the changing social character in the workforce (Maccoby, 2008).  Bean is representative of knowledge workers, who handle or use information, and see themselves as independent free agents in a collaborative community that seek leaders who can channel their ambitions and create opportunities for them.  They have an “interactive” social character that desires recognition for the value they contribute to the workforce.  This is in stark contrast to leading with supervision and authority that was the predominant model in a hierarchical, industrialized environment (Maccoby, 2008).  Ender’s compassion prompts change in their relationship dynamics when he confides in Bean and recognizes his talents.  Ender made bean his protégé, bringing their goals into alignment and strengthening the bond of trust between them.  This move strengthened the Dragon army which faced tremendous obstacles and disadvantages.

The students, who first meet as peers in the Battle School, must socially construct leadership roles prior to being given positional power by teachers in commanding an army.  The children, however, develop a “power born of excellence” (Card, 1991, p. 245), which is a nonpositional and far more challenging power to obtain.

In contrast, the adults hold traditional leadership roles in which authority and power is derived from their position, rather than their leadership ability.  The adults use the power of manipulation—an easy, positional power to wield—and use the students as a means to their own ends, and as pawns who will fight a war.  The adults use a lack of transparency as a tool for manipulation, by not telling Ender he has killed two children, Stinson and Bonzo.  Even after Ender shares his suspicions and nightmares with them, the adults continue to delude him, telling Ender that it was just a dream.  Ultimately, the adults lack the honesty and transparency to tell Ender that he is fighting a real war against the buggers, deluding Ender into thinking that he is playing against Mazer Rackham.  Ender lives with the regret of making maneuvers that he never would have made if he had known that it was not a game.  The lack of transparency is another mechanism for control, manipulation and protection of authority by adults who are dark side leaders (Clements & Washbush, 1999) and use their positions as a means to their own ends, to win the war.

The teacher’s positional use of the power of manipulation and lack of transparency creates an indelible breach of trust between the generations.  The teachers destroy the symbiosis of trust that must exist in any relationship between leaders and followers (Kouzes & Posner, 2011).  Because there has been a history of an imbalance of power and a lack of trust in the relationship, akin to previous generations of men and women (Wollstonecraft, 1792 in Kellerman, 2010), Ender does not trust Colonel Hyrum Graff’s statement that perhaps Ender is the best and only commander who can command the fleet in the war against the buggers, thinking that it is only another example of manipulation.

Influencing Followers

Ender’s transformational leadership was the “glue” that held his team together (Jackson & Parry, 2011).  Ender began with a vision of leadership, an examination of his values, and a bond of empathy and trust between individuals and among the team that made others want to follow him.  Ender’s leadership began with the thought that “I know how to bring a group together, too.  Maybe I’ll be a commander someday” (Card, p. 81).  Although this is phrased as a wish, a future goal often begins as a wish that we work to make true.


Ender acted on his vision and values in bringing team unity.

When he attained formal authority, Ender acted on his vision and values in bringing the group together and was keenly aware of the group dynamics and bonds that were forming among the children.  He was a perceptive leader who took notes on each individual in the unit, listing their strengths and weaknesses.  While Ender was able to recognize individual and personality differences, he was successful in creating a shared sense of purpose among his team (Maccoby, 2008).  Ender was future-focused in his vision for how the platoon should function, which gave him a strategic advantage within the Battle School because he trained his platoon according to how they would need to perform in battle.  He knew the strengths and weaknesses of team members so that he could deploy them according to their strengths.

Ender recognized that was a leader of an army of knowledge workers who seek leaders that employ a collaborative style, seeking their input and uniting teams around a common purpose.  He recognized that these individuals had an interactive social character (Maccoby, 2008).

Ender also employed a model of shared leadership in which followers are co-constructors of leadership with two-way influence and recognition of expertise (Jackson & Parry, 2011).  Ender was able to skillfully command a fleet of knowledge workers by recognizing the individual strengths and weaknesses of the squadron leaders.  Each squadron leader had their own realm of leadership, acting intelligently and independently and bringing their own knowledge into the situation.  Ender provided overall strategic direction and oversight, uniting everyone in working toward the same goal.  By using a transformational leadership style in which leadership was co-constructed and shared, Ender was able to defeat the buggers whose unitary leadership and thought that was vested only in the queen.

Leadership Strengths and Weaknesses

Ender demonstrated that credibility that is the foundation of leadership because his leadership reflected and embodied the values in which he believed deeply (Kouzes & Posner, 2011).  He had a deep commitment to his values of friendship and camaraderie, justice and fairness.  He was outwardly focused on others and cared deeply about their physical and emotional well-being.  He cared about the development of each individual’s skills and abilities in battle and knowing each individual’s strength and weaknesses and how they could contribute to the whole.  He cared about the development of friendship and camaraderie among his army and building a foundation of trust.  His leadership demonstrated a high level of emotional intelligence (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005) through social awareness and relationship management.


Ender lacks insight into his own well-being and allows himself to become physically run-down.

While Ender demonstrated a high level of self-awareness and self-knowledge in understanding—and capitalizing—on his strengths, he lacks the self-awareness of his own limitations.  He has a keen vision for the future and the incredible drive and motivation to succeed and overcome challenges that are the crucible for greatness (Kouzes & Posner, 2011).

However, he lacks insight into his own well-being and allows himself to become physically run-down, and he also neglects his own safety and places himself in situations that jeopardize his life.  Although many leadership writers (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005; Kouzes & Posner, 2011) focus on understanding and developing strengths, a strength of leadership is the ability to understand our limitations and to effectively manage them.  In his own moment of weakness, when Ender was being pushed to his physical and mental limits and he was risking too much in battle, he turned and pushed Petra past her limit, offering her little empathy or support (Card, 1991, p. 285).  Petra was broken.  Effective leadership lies in creating resonance within ourselves and attending to our own mind, body, heart and spirit (Boyatzis & McKee, 2005), and Ender did not consistently respect his own or other’s limits.

Youth and adults learn that leadership is built on a foundation of empathy and mutual trust and transparency.  Ender had compassion for others—and also for the enemy.  “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him,” Ender said (Card, 1991, p. 238).  These characteristics establish leader credibility (Kouzes & Posner, 2011).

Through Ender, they learn about the “light side of leadership” through an authentic leader who demonstrates the value of leadership to society in improving the lives of others (Jackson & Parry, 2011).  Through compassion for others, Ender improved his world by learning and cultivating his talents—and sharing them for the mutual benefit of himself and his followers.  Ender practiced leadership as parenting, promoting the growth and development of his followers so that they could become leaders themselves (Jackson & Parry, 2011).

From Ender’s weaknesses, teachers and students learn the value of greater awareness of cultural diversity.  They also learn the symbiotic interconnection between leaders and followers which must look out for each other and respect the personal limits of physical and mental endurance and the need for self-renewal in the face of self-sacrifice and unrelenting power stress.

Ender—and the International Fleet—succeeded succeeded because he embodied a transformational leadership style.  Ender treated other youths as knowledge workers, and from Ender, they learned more about their own strengths and the contributions they could make in the war against the buggers.  Ender sought out and recognized their contributions.  He also could be viewed as a “post-transformational” leader because there was distributed leadership on teams and learning from success and failure (Fullan, 2001 in Jackson & Parry, 2011). In this way, they won the war because they recognized the contribution of many minds—not just one.

Leadership Lessons from Ender

Ender is compelling because he epitomizes effective leadership.  He demonstrates that leadership is not just about intelligence or great ideas, that these are merely foundational skills.  Ender teaches what is important in leadership and demonstrates that emotional intelligence is the foundation of leadership.


Enders understands others feelings and strengths – a mark of a great leader.

I admire Ender’s foundational skills in keenly observing others to understand their feelings, their strengths, and their weaknesses.  Ender had the ability to study his enemy and to know the enemy’s weakness.  In business, while people recognize other’s strengths, they also take note of any weaknesses, utilizing this knowledge as needed.  With his keen observation, assessment and adaptability, Ender knew from the beginning that the “enemy is our teacher.” He understood that “the enemy shows you where you are weak.  Only the enemy shows you where he is strong” (Card, 1991, p. 262).

Ender is an authentic leader who develops his own values and stays true to them (Jackson & Parry, 2011).  He has the personal integrity and strength to break from his past and not repeat past behaviors and to develop his own values.  He asks himself, “Why am I doing this? What does this have to do with being a good commander…? Just because they did it to me, why should I do it to him?”  I wrestle with this same issue: “If others treat me badly, why should I not treat them the same way?”  It is an ethical question in business that I often contemplate.  All too often in business, negative behavior is learned and then perpetuated and becomes an entrenched dynamic that is part of the corporate culture (Jackson & Parry, 2011).  Ender shows us an alternate path is possible through strength of character.

The movie portrays Ender as a principled leader who demonstrates appropriate ways to push back at authority.  He exercises this action judiciously, and only when his values are at stake.  Ender’s high level of organizational awareness extends to the organizational politics around the formation of relationships and alliances and he observes how cliques are forming around him.  He is very strategic in developing strategies to break the clique, and I admire his ability to form alliances and build relationships that are professionally and personally rewarding.

From the moment he realized that the “Enemy’s gate is down,” Ender was a master strategist on the battlefield.  He could analyze the situation and plan battlefield maneuvers.  He had the ability to look at the situation and strategically analyze how it would play out.  All too often, we are more like Ender outside of the battlefield, when he looks back and reflects on the situation—such as his victory against Bonzo—and only then realizes that he should have handled the situation differently.  As leaders, we tend to become bogged down in the underbrush instead of looking at the trees.

In the final battle scene, Ender skillfully directs and coordinates his team which is responsive to him—and for the most part—he is responsive to them as they work toward a particular goal.  I desire to emulate Ender and to wield power in this way to lead a team in accomplishing goals.

Since the movie has debuted in November 2013, much has been written about leadership and life lessons from Ender’s Game (e.g., Knapp, 2013).  Each review highlights different aspects of the book and movie which demonstrates that Ender has much to teach us on many different levels.



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(Images: Selected  promotional screen shots from movie and book)

About the author

Susan Boswell

Susan Boswell, MA, CAE, has a master’s degree in management at Notre Dame of Maryland University. She was named to the Delta Mu Delta national honor society in business. Contact the author.

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