Playful leadership: 10 reasons to use play in leadership

I had the pleasure of speaking at WonkHE and Adobe’s Educational Espresso at the end of May. The subject was “pedagogy and playfulness” and I confess to having a “I’m so not qualified to speak on this” imposter syndrome moment. Then I thought that actually I did do quite a lot of stuff around play and have tried to approach my new leadership role with curiosity, which all counts. And so approached the event, with the same attitude and it was fun (but not “forced fun”!). It was brilliant to listen to such interesting perspectives from the other panellists and read all the comments. Speaking at the event also made me reflect on why I think playful approaches are so important in leadership. When I say “play” here, I am thinking about it in the broadest sense about creativity and experimentation, as discussed in the session, sometimes it is hard for adults to engage in “play” seriously (as Nic Whitton and Alex Moseley talk about in their brilliant book Playful Learning.)

Lego figure and pieces
Leadership and play session with Lego

So, here are my top ten reasons (it was 5 but there were just too many!) why as a leader, engaging in play is so important…

  1. Build trust and connections – when you “play”, you need to build trust with your participants and connect with them. Both of which are vital to do as a leader.
  2. Vulnerability – I have never felt so vulnerable when facilitating play sessions – in a positive way. And I am a big advocate of the approach promoted by Brene Brown that to lead is to be vulnerable.
  3. Risk taking – playful approaches and creativity are all about risk. By using these in your leadership practice, you are supporting others to take risks.
  4. Failure – play is also linked to failure. We all make mistakes and try things that do not work. Play gives a safe environment in which to do this and as a leader you send out to your organisation that it is ok to try things that do not work. Working in higher education, I think this is a really important message to send to our students.
  5. Walking the talk – related to that, is that playful approaches enable you to model the behaviour you would like to see in others – experimentation, creativity, risk taking. Again, if we expect our students to try these approaches, we should try them ourselves.
  6. Curiosity – to play is to be curious. Something we also expect our students to do. As a leader, being curious, listening and understanding the perspectives of others – all things that can be engendered through playful approaches – is a key part of successful leadership practice.
  7. Learning – engaging in play and facilitating playful opportunities are huge learning opportunities for me. As a leader, I have learnt more about the experiences of others and their solutions. We learn at the edge of our comfort zone and play can get you to that place in a safe way.
  8. Inclusivity – I have found playful approaches, when used well and sensitively to be really inclusive. Play can enable everyone’s voice to be heard, for people to share deeply personal ideas and experiences in a different way. Inclusive leadership is core to my leadership values.
  9. Fresh thinking and creativity – is fairly obvious really! But by enabling more voices to be heard, we can problem solve in a different way and have the opportunity to think differently. Again, as a leader, supporting creativity and new ways of thinking is an important skill.
  10. Speed/productivity – in my experience, where I have used play we have reached solutions much faster than more mundane approaches. The refreshing and rejuvenating effect of play can speed up problem solving, team building, strategy making… the possibilities are endless!

My playful leadership practice is very much a work in progress and I would love to hear from you about how you might have tried playful approaches in your work. Thank you to WonkHE and Adoboe for inviting me to the Education Espresso event and for inspiring this post.

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