Barefoot Leadership: The neglected activity of leaders

Play is important.

For any child, play is serious stuff and central to their daily activities. We have lots of expressions that would underscore the importance of play (all work and no play makes Johnny a dull boy is one I recall). But as adults we don’t really believe it. At least not if we are to be judged by our responses to, ‘Dad, can you come and play?’ Somehow that question always seems to arrive at the most inopportune moment and somehow we repeatedly hear ourselves respond, ‘Not right now’, or ‘I’m busy but I’ll come in a little while’, only never to get around to it. Our schedule always assumes priority over the little people’s agenda and timing. Well, they will learn not to ask when they can see I am busy, we reason.

A recently overheard conversation between a friend and his three-year-old daughter: ‘Dad, you won’t work at my party, will you?’ Or the conditioned response closer to home of, ‘Dad, I know you will probably say no, but . . .’ When I hear that precursor it wrenches at my heart because there is no hiding or denying the poor track record that has prompted such an approach.

The next stage is even worse. It is when they don’t ask at all. And when you wake up to what you have missed, it is too late and it is the little people who have grown up and are now themselves too busy. And there is no going back.

It seems that along the way we are taught that adults don’t really play, well, certainly not leaders at any rate. Leadership is serious stuff – there’s no denying that. But leaders, more than most, need to play. And I am not just talking about adult play here because we give that important names like vacation, rest, retreat, sport, entertaining clients and so on.

I’m talking about down-to-earth, knee-dirty type play. Engaging with a little person and accepting their invitation to enter their world where you could become anyone and anything. Why, just the other day I became Spiderman. I have always wanted to be Spiderman and for a few special moments I was . . . until that is the game’s plot required a tree and so the intrepid (and well cast) Spiderman was, like it or not,  turned into a weeping Willow. . .

From time to time leaders need to engage in the magical world of make-believe, to indulge in a game of cards or monopoly, to pick up the bat and ball and be the first to holler, ‘Let’s go play!’

Finding games to play with the little people at home is easy – just let them lead and I bet you will be the first to make the ‘time-out’ call. In the serious world of corporate life the play is there – it is just that it has been neglected for so long that it might require time and care to restore it to its rightful place.

But don’t worry. There will be others who, if asked, will know what to do, and here’s a tip: let them decide the play.

I know of a international software company who used ‘play’ to help create their very serious stratgy. It was a playfully serious company to begin with but the strategy formulation was centred around a storytelling theme and at one stage, involved fancy dress and play acting. It worked. I am involved with another company, this time one that plays in the insurance field, who created deliberate space for play in the the midst of their serious work. They are now thinking of including surfing as part of bringing to life the metaphor they hope will guide them into their future. I know of a call centre that has created access to various computer games for their staff to play. Play is important. When did we stop believing that as adults?

I was once shown around a very well organised preschool crèche. It catered for a sector of the community that did not have much cash to spare but who were nonetheless fiercely proud of appearances and making the most of what they had. This was reflected in the dress code of the kids who arrived each morning. Each child wore shoes, for to go barefoot was considered a sign of poverty, something that their parents wanted to avoid at all costs. Because of this prevailing social mindset, taking one’s shoes off during the morning (and for some the entire day) was considered poor form. If the parents were to arrive and see their kids without shoes they would voice their displeasure to the principal. But here was the problem and dilemma for the principal and her staff. Playing while wearing shoes was problematic. The jungle gym, the sandpit and various other play activities were best done without shoes. In fact, she explained, going barefoot in such instances was important in the kids’ development as they learnt to feel different textures with their feet. Yet for the sake of appearances they were denied this opportunity and it seemed that no amount of explanation was going to persuade the parents otherwise.

It occurred to me that many leaders are subjected to the same restrictions as those kids. They are leading with their shoes on when the situation calls for ‘barefoot leadership’.

I wonder what those ‘shoes’ are for you? I also wonder what it would be like for you to try going barefoot for a while?

And yes, you can take that as a dare! Go on then…I dare you!

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