21st Century Leadership

The Power of Play - Joyous Surprise at the end of a Keynote Address

I gave a keynote on the Power of Play at CounterPlay15 in Denmark a few days ago. At the end of the talk, I asked the 250 participants whether they would prefer to have a Q&A or a game instead. The unanimous agreement was, "A game."

This was the result....a tangible enactment of the Power of Play to connect and energise, and a reminder that it is in Play that we develop incredible insight and agility. 

Leading with PACE: Better Business Impact without the Burnout

Slow signpostWith news that South Africa faces a real slowdown in terms of economic growth for 2014 and forecast for even greater downward trends in 2015, the questions become, "How does one do more with less? How does one run a business which can create a better business impact without increasing the burnout of one's employees and one's self?" There is a new model for leadership which addresses these things. It is called PACE based leadership. Its philosophical underpinnings are grounded in four new leadership practices which take into account the need to create greater traction with less resources. Leading with PACE focuses on Play, Agility, Curiosity and Energy to achieve this.

joker_why_so_serious-wideWhen leaders adopt a playful mindset to the work which needs to get done, they become more comfortable in a world where boundaries aren't clearly defined and the landscape changes at a rate which is difficult to predict. It is not so much about building play activities into one's job. It is more about reminding oneself that when one is playful, we bring a sense of the present, of being mindful in the moment and a sense of focus to the work we are engaged in.

There has always been a misguided comfort in the belief that the Business of Business is Business. Unfortunately this kind of thinking leaves one open to the very real danger of Overseriousness where work no longer feels like an adventure, where we start feeling cynical about the processes we are engaged in, disconnected from our colleagues, fueled with fatigue at what lies ahead and scared of taking risks and innovating beyond the known.

For Lego, the largest toy company in the world, when we adapt a playful approach, when we remember the joy of seeing work as play, as the place where we don't know the outcome of our endeavour, our attitudes change; we become more courageous and realigned to the work we do.

Nature goalAgility, the second part of the Pace based leadership model reminds us that being comfortable with changing course mid-direction is an important leadership quality to be able to call on. Apple is notorious for driving its professionals crazy for their constant mid directional changes. They are however changes which have built it into the most admired company, according to Forbes, in the world. Agile leaders are able to better mitigate their risks and hear the footsteps of the future approaching. Being agile, like being playful, is never just about one decision. It is an approach to leading.

Curiosity, the third piece to the PACE model of leadership, is an enabler of agile and playful practices. When we are curious, we notice other opportunities, we let go of our assumptions and make better commercial decisions; curious leaders are more able to rid themselves of dogma, prejudice and judgement. Being able to notice helps us to unlearn, to begin again in the middle, if need be.

Leadership insight 1When we lead with PACE, we lead at a rate that feels resonant for each and every one of us. It requires that we change our mindset from focusing on the time we have available to the energy required to complete the task at hand.

Leading with PACE gives us the tools to reframe our thinking, engage and connect meaningfully with others and avoid the burnout so often associated with trying to match the speed of the environment we are operating in. It provides counter tools to the traditional methods of control and command and enables leaders to reshape their leadership challenges with energy, ease and insight.




PlayandmagicElaine Rumboll has developed a one day masterclass on Leading with PACE. The programme has been designed for organisations looking to generate a more meaningful impact through less resources, and to gain more traction through a more fulfilling way of leading and doing. For a detailed description of what the masterclass entails, download the pdf here.










The Dangers of Overseriousness

GameOnIt is ironic that we are hard wired to include the word 'fear' when we speak of Uncertainty - the fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of judgement. However if we look at artistic and entrepreneurial practice, all efforts at innovation, creativity and engagement come from a place of NOT knowing what the outcome will be.  It is in this place of not knowing that we create, connect and innovate. It seems that it is the nature of creativity to come from a place of uncertainty. History is peppered with stories of people who started off believing they were inventing one thing and ended up inventing another. It is precisely this uncertainty which is at the heart of innovation which allows for something different to emerge when we trust the process and allow it to unfold into what can be.

There is however another place where uncertainty is inherent in the system but does not bring with it the accompanying feeling of fear. That is in the place of Play. When we play, we have no idea of what the outcome will be. Play is always accompanied by uncertainty, not knowing what the end result will look like. However Play is also fun. It is an immersive experience of flow, of being energised in the moment and losing oneself in the joy of an experience. When we try to control the outcome of an experience, we go out of Play and into a place of performance anxiety.

There is a direct relationship between playing well and leading well in business today. Both have uncertainty as systemic in their systems. We no longer operate in environments where we can clearly delineate the boundaries of our operations, our competitors often come from disparate industries. If one attempts to lead in this environment with an 'overseriousness', the consequences are dire. We run the risk of creating stifling environments because people become scared to immerse themselves in the uncertainty and just stick to the well traveled path. By not equating work with a place of fun, of emergence we run the risk of getting stuck in systems that are mediocre, we run the risk of increasing bureaucracies. When you replace overseriousness with the spirit of play, it does not mean that you are not accountable for results: scores are part of the game.

At work, we want fully engaged teams that understand their roles in the state of play, where we don't assume fixed odds. No game is ever predictable so why do we treat our businesses as if they are?

We talk so much about teams, rewards, awards, competition in the  jargon of business but the direct concept of Play even in its structured form is considered anathema to the 'serious business' of business. Consider a game like football, where all the players are expected to be in top form, but yet the outcome of each game is unpredictable. It wouldn't be exciting if people couldn't be trusted to improvise and take the risks necessary to achieve extraordinary outcomes.

What could Leadership look like if we treated it as a state of Play?

A playful leader energises other by bringing with them a sense of infectious fun, challenge, and the possibility of glorious achievement. The team’s flow and sense of involvement is more important than any individual act. The spirit of the game is all important - it is here where both the rules of the games and the relationships in the game matter.

Improvisation would be encouraged. We would allow for stellar acts of personal achievement - which we would reward and celebrate. Camaraderie and the spirit of fair play would be emphasised over the achievement of results at all costs. Here opportunities for people to connect matter . For one cannot play well together unless you connect well together. It is no small irony that the first thing to go when budgets are tight are the social activities. However, these are not indulgences, or frivolities but critical to the heart of play and possibility.

In Play we see other options. Sometimes playing through our most difficult challenges allows us to see other solutions as I so often see in the Lego Serious Play coaching I do. So if you want to avoid the dangers of overseriousness, which brings with it disengagement, mediocrity as a result of fear of failing, and bloated bureaucracies, embrace Play as a powerful leadership tool.





How PACE based leadership can energise your business

How often have you been requested to a meeting and dreaded it? Not just because of the fact that they often tend to be dreary and unproductive but also because they are seldom a place for sparking anything new. This is often because people come to meetings stuck in a particular position or mindset. I have developed a model which can, among other things, be applied to renergise a meeting place. It is based on work I have developed around what I have termed PACE based Leadership. The approach draws on four key leadership practices which are required to build highly functional teams, perspectives to be used when grappling with challenges and rethinking new approaches to things. At the heart of PACE based leadership is the emphasis on Play, Agility, Curiosity and Energy as critical leadership practices for today. Leading at PACE is a counter to the attempt to work faster in order to deal with the every increasing complexities and uncertainties of modern day business. For if we understand how to Play, embrace our own curiosity, learn to be more adaptable in the work we do and focus more on managing our energy than our time, the level of resonance and quality of our output is bound to improve.

PACE model.jpeg.001Inventors dream up new products, services and processes.

Tinkerers adapt and improve on the services and products offered.

Navigators set the direction, whilst ensuring the selection, cohesion and synthesis of all the elements

Builders turn ideas into executionable realities

I think that each of these roles requires a focus on a very particular leadership practice in order for their efforts to be effective and sustainable.

Navigators must be Curious

Proust said, "In order to discover new land, one must lose sight of the shore for a very long time". One of the dangers of being a leader is how easy it is to lose sight of one's own role. Power has a fascinating way of making people believe they are invincible, above the morals of lesser mortals; there is also a tendency to believe that one's own solutions are the correct ones. What a healthy dose of curiosity does is to allow for one to be less dogmatic,  see other opportunities and other perspectives whilst increasing commercial acumen and mitigating risk. Be fascinated by your own ignorance and see what changes for you.

Tinkerers must be Agile

When one is required to improve a system or change a process, the default response is to look to where it has worked best elsewhere. The danger in this is that each organisation has an internal readiness to change which can only be adopted through the hearts and minds of others who work there. Lego didn't almost collapse because they tried new things. Their system almost imploded because they did not have the cultural willingness for the innovations they were experimenting with. The conceptual conundrum is that organisations are complex, adaptable systems so a simple causal approach to how systems should be changed is bound to land up a failure. Forget about best practice. Look for a new practice which is congruent with where your organisation is, and one which is easily adopted by the current culture.

Inventors must Play

There is enormous pressure on people working in the arena of product and business development to come up with the new. It breeds an overseriousness which can in fact lead to mediocrity and a stifling overbureaucratisation. What Play does is that it moves people out of Ego and into a state of flow. Play makes one more adaptable to change, more emotionally resilient and more open to testing and experimenting with alternatives.

Builders must have Energy

In order to get things done, one needs to recruit the service of others. Above all things this requires energy; energy which is both in the doing and in the motivating of others. Focus on what needs to get done not on how people are going to get it done. Manage their deliverables not their time.

So why not assign these roles at your next meeting - a navigator, a tinkerer, an inventor and a builder. Experiment by first assigning them to ones who obviously fit these roles and then do another round, let them pick a role randomly out of a hat and try to see things from a perspective which is not familiar.  Request that their attitude fit their role, be it playful, curious, energised or adaptable. Ask them to use the lens of experimentation, refining, building or making for how they respond to challenges and opportunities raised in your meeting. See what changes, how people shift and what kind of fresh eyed thinking comes out.


What Curiosity Isn't

Curiosity as a lens for your attentionCuriosity is increasingly being touted as a critical 21st leadership practice for business leaders. Curious leaders are able to better mitigate risk, more willing to be open to the diverse opinions of others, frame and reframe alternative perspectives when it comes to decision making. In short, curious leaders as able to better access their agility - so important for leaders today in a world where attempting to going faster than the rate of change has proven to be a fruitless and ineffectual practice. In the charge to fuel organisations full of curiosity, certain assumptions have been made which I would like to challenge. I would like to delineate three things which are often incorrectly ascribed to the notion of Curiosity. Highlighting their importance will perhaps go some way in revealing why curiosity is an important trait to nurture in adults.


Curiosity is not the same as Wonder Despite the importance of Curiosity as an impactful leadership practice in one's business strategic leadership armoury, many organisations have been wary of bringing curiosity into their company culture. The argument is that curious workers will become even more distracted then they currently are. This is based on the faulty assumption that wonder and curiosity are the same thing.

Embracing wonder is what will send one down a rabbit hole and spiral you into overload. Awe is about the general whilst Curiosity is always about the particular. Curiosity, according to George Loewenstein is what emerges when there is a mental object that exists out in the world that purports a different way of perceiving what your mental models states as the fact of a thing. When your mental model is disrupted, you have one of two choices. You can either suspend disbelief and become curious or you can reject the alternative out of hand and remain with your way of seeing and doing.

An example that I think clearly makes the point is the one which relates to bones in a human. If I were to give you two sets of numbers - 305 and 206 - perhaps the only thing you might find vaguely interesting is the fact that they both equal 8 if you had to do a calculation. But what if I gave you a context - what if I were to say to you that these are the number of bones in a child’s body and an adult's body? Then perhaps your curiosity might be piqued. Your mental model of the world has probably decided that when we are borne we are given a set of bones which remain unchanging over time unless there is an accident or operation. You could choose to dismiss this assertion and continue to operate in the world under your own assumption or you could ask, “Why?”. This questioning is curiosity in its essence. The answer is that bones fuse over time.

Curiosity is a critical lens to help focus our attention on that which we are disrupted by, and that which remains incongruent in terms of our world view. Curiosity is what causes us to challenge the way we see things and genuinely become interested in the opinions and views of others. It also helps us to see other possibilities. It is also a marker to challenge us when we rely, because of pressure of time, on the two or three models we have been taught to solve whatever problem is in front of us.

Curiosity is an Adult trait

According to Steven Dutch, children are tinkerers. It is worth quoting his insight in full: "The commonplace observation that children have short attention spans is direct refutation of the notion that they are creative and curious in any deep sense. The tragedy of our society is not that so many people outgrow their childlike curiosity, but that so few do. The adult equivalent of childlike curiosity is channel surfing and the ten-second sound bite". In order to be curious, one needs to have one's mental models disrupted within a context. Children spend their formative years building those models through repetition and tinkering. It is only once those mental models have been established that they can be disrupted. Far from the popular belief that Curiosity is steadfastly beaten out of us as children,  it is as adults that we stop being curious once we have worldviews that we decide on and find more convenient not to have changed.

Curiosity didn't Kill the Cat

I cannot begin to count the times that people quip at me about cats when I speak about Curiosity. In fact Curiosity didn't kill the cat. The notion of Curiosity emerged etymologically in the 14th century as synonymous with Care. So when it is spoken of that Curiosity killed the cat, what is being referred to is Care, that too much care will smother things, the usage of a cat because it is one of the least interested of the animal kingdom in too much fussing.

To develop Curiosity as a practice, we need to accept responsibility for the fact that it is an adult trait, an appreciating asset that grows over time with use. It is your conscious role in seeking out things that disrupt your worldview through exploring other disciplines and insights that will challenge how you see the world and help you change it.