Play to Lead
Updated: May 19
This blog post considers the role of playfulness in HE leadership development, with a focus on overcoming obstacles such as impostor syndrome and low confidence.
My experiences of participating in Higher Education leadership development practices have led me to reflect on how powerful playfulness can be when applied within this context. Playful practices can be a way to increase self-awareness and articulate goals: ultimately helping to overcome individual barriers to leadership.
Why Play to Lead?
Leaders need to be self-aware, hone their personal 'brand' and engage others: all skills that playful, multisensory learning can develop. Whether you want to use collage to reflect on your strengths, LEGO® bricks to reflect on your leadership identity or infographics to engage your team with visual stories, play and leadership are a fertile combination.
When taking part in leadership development we are usually presented with classifications of leadership, such as Lewin's styles, dividing leadership types into autocratic, democratic and delegative or tables of styles ranging from affiliative to coercive. How does playfulness fit in here? A good place to start is with Alex Mosely's recent webinar: Leading Playfully (below). This webinar was one of a series created for the Playful University Platform, an online community that has grown out of the Playful University Conference, held at Aarhus University, Denmark in 2019. The Playful University Platform (PUP for short) is led (playfully) by Rikke Toft Nørgård and Josephine Eghave Midttun Solheim, and contains a treasure trove of interviews and resources: "engaging and connecting playful voices in teaching, learning and research."
Leading Playfully Webinar, Alex Mosely
Alex's webinar sets out a refreshing set of Playful Leadership Principles: Social, Dialogical, Open, Giving Agency, Goals, Feedback Loop and Engagement/Fun. He sees Giving Agency as a key principle, and I can see how play, particularly in its social aspects, could support this Freire - based approach to leadership. This is very much welcomed by those (such as myself) who find what Alex describes as "formal, cold" leadership approaches alienating.
Leadership and LEGO®
With its use in business strategy, planning and problem-solving, LEGO® Serious Play® would seem an ideal candidate for a playful approach to leadership development: Susannah Quinsee describes a recent online 'Online Lego Serious Play for Developing Leadership' workshop in this blog post. In this session Susannah asked students to work through a number of LSP exercises, including building a 'nightmare leader': an effective idea, enabling students to playfully approach a discussion of negative leadership. They were then asked to build a model of leadership within their own (quite varied) professional contexts, providing the opportunity for reflection on leadership literature. Finally, students were asked to adapt their models to show how their professional context impacted on their own leadership philosophy, prompting discussion and ideas for concrete action. For Susannah, "taking time out to “play” is vital for leaders".
As well as its capacity for prompting reflection, creativity and storytelling, another good reason for using LSP in leadership development is its inherently inclusive ethos: the voices of all leaders and prospective leaders, no matter what their personal and professional contexts, can be heard and valued equally using this method.
Leadership and Impostor Syndrome
Something that many of us experience when considering a leadership role is the feeling of being an 'impostor': we may worry about being 'found out' as a fraud and have a sense that we do not 'belong' as a leader. This is where a playful approach can be so helpful: a game of Impostor Syndrome Bingo anyone? Dr. Sarah Ballard outlines how to use this playful activity as part of an Impostor Syndrome workshop here : there are even sets of printable bingo cards (see below) that you can download. The sharing of numbers of boxes ticked in our bingo cards allows us to see just how common feelings of impostor syndrome are, and that we are not alone in our insecurities. This type of playful activity can open up debate and break down barriers, offering both a non-threatening, engaging route to sharing our anxieties and a lead-in to discussing strategies to overcome impostor syndrome.
Lead On! Play On!
So, a playful approach to leadership development can provide an alternative leadership model, offer multiple perspectives on leadership philosophies and give us a way to open up discussions about self-doubt to name just a few examples. The key message is that the social, emotional and compassionate affordances of play are of particular benefit to future leaders. The leadership landscape is of course, like everything else, constantly shifting: perhaps play can help? Playful community Counterplay puts it best: “In a complex world of constant change and uncertainty, play is a way to cope, navigate, create and exist.” What leader wouldn't want that?