“if we want to make it safely and sanely through all the changes coming our way, we’re going to need to come out and play” – Bernie DeKoven

Play is, perhaps more than anything, a fundamental source of fun, joy and well-being throughout our lives. It’s not reserved for children, and it’s not a luxury or something we do, when every other need is satisfied. On the contrary, it’s an “underlying, always there, continuum of experience” (Richard Schechner).

Playful leadership then becomes a matter of cultivating playful mindsets and playful culture. As such, a playful leader is a leader, who not only accepts, but actively supports a playful culture.

Why would you do that?

Play opens up an organisation to the world, and it can’t be controlled. In play, we embrace the unpredictable. “When we adopt a playful attitude, we’re more open to a diverse, even divergent, set of possibilities” (Herminia Ibarra). We accept that the world is complex and chaotic, and we increase our ability to navigate this complexity. Quite often, play does not have a clear and pre-determined outcome, and if there is a goal, we usually don’t know how to get there. The playful leader may be the one proposing a vision and a direction for the organization, but it can never be set in stone. As an integral part of play, we engage in a constant movement, and an ongoing negotiation of rules, goals and meaning. Play challenges existing hierarchies and power structures, as everybody playing is part of this negotiation.

When you’re a playful leader, you are able to instill a the people around you with the courage to experiment, and to take steps into the unknown, to break free from patterns and habits. In play, anything is possible. The entire world could be different. Your imagination is set free, your creativity runs wild, and your most crazy ideas may be the most meaningful ones. You take risks, and sometimes you end up in unexpected and perhaps even controversial territory. This creates a “friction” between us and the world, which generates questions. It’s a particular sort of “Verfremdungseffekt”, where we see the world “through the lens of play, to make it shake and laugh and crack because we play with it” (Miguel Sicart).

In this process, we connect with each other in new ways, be it friends, colleagues or strangers. Play is an act of expression and communication. We can play with our relationships, roles and our identities, and we can develop our empathy by adopting new perspectives on the word, just as “playfulness may serve as a lubricant in productive work-relations” (Proyer & Ruch).

…and these are just some of reasons, why I think we should do much more to explore and adopt more playful approaches to leadership.

Would you care to share your thoughts in the comments?

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Mathias Poulsen

I think a playful mindset is essential for us to live better lives together. I organise the CounterPlay Festival to cultivate a #playfulsociety.

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