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Portia Tung on Playful Leadership

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Playful leadership is a serious topic, says Portia Tung, executive and personal coach, play researcher and storyteller. In her talk Playful Leadership: How to Enable Transformational Change and Have Fun Doing It at the upcoming Aginext.io conference, she will explore why play is the most effective and efficient way of enabling individuals to learn, lead and work together.

Playful Leadership draws on research from a range of disciplines such as psychology and neuroscience, as well as play science and personal/group coaching. It fosters a growth-oriented approach that enables people to change with relative ease, and even experience joy instead of resistance and anguish. Tung points out that research shows that getting your daily amount of play is at least as important as taking your vitamins or ensuring you have a healthy diet and plenty of exercise.

The Aginext conference runs in London on 21-22 March and is focused on looking at the future of agile, lean, CI/CD and DevOps transformations.

InfoQ spoke to Portia Tung about what playful leadership is, why it matters, and some of the techniques individuals and organisations can use to bring in more playfulness.

InfoQ: Why "playful leadership"? Isn't leadership a serious topic?

Portia Tung: I couldn't agree more! It's precisely because leadership is a serious topic, especially when we consider what's at stake: our lives, our well-being and our happiness and that of our colleagues, our friends and our loved ones, that we need to think afresh about leadership. What it really means, what it really takes and how to really lead. And that fresh thinking begins with thinking for ourselves.

In my experience, Play is the most effective and efficient way of enabling individuals to learn, lead and work together, to think for themselves and make best use of all the resources they have available. Think back to a time when you learned lots and learned quickest. It's no coincidence that we develop so much so quickly in our early years. We were experiencing the transformative nature of Play.

InfoQ: What is Playful Leadership, and what types of organisations is this appropriate for?

Tung: We have a leadership crisis on our hands. The problem is multifold, like a scrunched-up-sorry ball of over-pleated origami paper.

So much potential as a fresh piece of origami paper requires kindful crafting before a masterpiece emerges... And I'm not just referring to the finished folded creation. In my experience, the heart of origami mastery, like leadership mastery, lies within the origamist (the individual) mastering themselves through the craft of seemingly simple paper folding (the craft of leadership).

What I call Playful Leadership has emerged in response to the two elements that have resulted in a leadership plateau in so many organisations, large and small.

The first element is the "academic" approach to leadership. As sapiens ("wise men"), we have used many words to describe leadership. Did you know a simple search of "leadership" brings back 100k+ results on Amazon alone? And yet, in spite of our verbosity, little advancement has been made in terms of leadership in organisations.

The second element is the lack of leadership role models. People we can learn from who don't just talk but walk the walk of leadership. Better still, we would be able to learn from leaders who shuffle and twirl to the dance of leadership. Now that would be something to behold in an all-hands meeting, wouldn't it?

Mix these two elements together, all talk and no walk, and it's no wonder we've got what we've got. Obese organisations that stumble about blindly, continuously gorging on recycled leadership platitudes with values carved in glass displayed at office receptions, seen by everyone and lived by only a few, fuelling increasing cynicism and resentment.

Playful Leadership is a fun and energising approach to leadership based on the latest research from a range of disciplines such as psychology and neuroscience, as well as Play science and personal/group coaching.

Playful Leadership enables people to do their freshest thinking through becoming their whole selves. This may sound like hardwork, but in practice it's one of the most courageous, exhilarating and rewarding things you'll probably ever do. It's a lot like the nail-biting, heart-pounding, tear-jerking adventure of parenting (and/or management), growing the next generation of citizens of the world.

InfoQ: What are the benefits that individuals and organisations will get from bringing in more playfulness?

Tung: Imagine. What if... instead of discarding our playful mindset we retained it throughout our childhood and adulthood? Just think of the fun we could have cultivating many of the desirable attributes of a mature human being while achieving seemingly impossible things: from creative problem solving to hopeful thinking, from flow to resilience, from mindfulness to powerful listening in even adverse circumstances. That's True Play as defined by Dr Stuart Brown in his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination and Invigorates the Soul as "fair play, safe play and being a good sport".

In addition to Dr Stuart Brown's definition of Play as "fun, flexible and freely chosen", through my work as an organisational change agent, I've discovered Play works even better when we have more fun than purpose, a key element to Playful Leadership.

This growth-oriented approach when applied to organisational change enables people to change with relative ease and even joy instead of resistance and anguish. Given we spend more than 70% of our waking hours doing work or work-related activities, who doesn't want to have more fun in their lives given half a chance?

InfoQ: What are some of the techniques to bring more playfulness into organisations today?

Tung: Group Play

A popular one is start off a meeting with a warmup exercise that lasts at last a few minutes - long enough for people to receive your play invitation and respond once they experience the liberating psychological safety that comes for free with True Play.

1. Give people long enough to switch on their playful mindset (some will take longer, others will be quicker - everyone's different when it comes to play).

2. Be super clear about the goal and success criteria of your meeting - writing a user story for a meeting and sharing it upfront is a great way to create alignment. And, of course, reiterate it after the warmup to ensure group alignment.

3. Create an environment where everyone gets equal chance and amount of time to speak so that people can do their best thinking.

What does such a meeting feel like? Much like girls and boys at the modern King Arthur's Round Table (see "The Kid Who Would Be King").

Remember to stay playful yourself… and keep your eyes and ears peeled to bear witness to the magic that unfolds!

Solo Play

As for play for one, I recommend every adult plays for at least five minutes once a day. Fifteen minutes is ideal. You decide what's fun, flexible and safe for you (and safe for others) when it comes to play.

It could be having a chat at the water cooler with a colleague-friend or skipping to school with your child from the school car park all the way to the school entrance. I guarantee that after skipping to school (while singing a song out loud) previously impossible things may suddenly seem possible!

InfoQ: Tell us a bit more about the School of Play?

Tung: I have a dream. One day, just before my daughter boards her spaceship to maintain intergalactic peace and make new friends, she says to me, "Mama, I remember growing up, you'd talk about how Play is the catalyst for self-actualisation and that we, as a species, need to change our relationship with work and play in order to realise our collective potential."

She smiles then continues. "I have never worked a day in my life since I have more fun than purpose, I love my colleagues as dear friends and I continue to learn and grow every day."

That's when I know my job is done. The School of Play is my gift to my little girl and all the children out there, both young and older (there's no need to count the years between friends - after all, time is relative). Consider it a gift to all those who dream of making a living through living their purpose and with the option to become fully themselves.

In spite of my compulsion to achieve all the time, I've come to recognise there is a direct correlation between how much I play and the amount of energy and happiness I feel. In fact, the more I play, the more energy I have, the happier I feel and the more I grow, the more I achieve. And that's why I make sure I play at least once a day, for at least 15 minutes.

Why? Because research shows that getting your daily amount of play is at least as important as taking your vitamins or ensuring you have a healthy diet and plenty of exercise. It's not always easy to find the time to play, but I know I'll feel better for it when I've played. After all, there's a great deal at stake: I'm playing to change the world for the better.

The School of Play takes play seriously. Visit their Play Manifesto, the school's pledge to play.

You can find out more in my talk on "The Power of Play – Making Good Team Great".

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