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Executive Education

Playful Leader, Serious Change

How many people today would describe their work as play? For most, work and play are opposites. For Frédéric Beziers, however, playfulness in the workplace is something to aspire to. “I would love to see more playful leaders in many organizations, each demonstrating a willingness to challenge and break some of the conventional codes of leadership.”

Playful leadership

Frédéric Beziers is Managing Director of the French branch of a large, international firm that requires its leaders to be sales-driven and conquering. “Being dominant was stressed,” he states, “and they wanted to see that style in every leader.”

When Frédéric Beziers joined the UK company to help launch its French branch, along with 6 other people, their distance from headquarters meant they could play with the traditional leadership mold of the company, and be more themselves. The French branch soon grew from the original six employees to over one-thousand.

 

CONSULTING AND COACHING FOR CHANGE

As Frédéric Beziers was launching a new HR consultancy within the company, he sought to grow his own skills in order to design new concepts and approaches to change that would support his growing corporate clientele. He found the HEC Paris and Saïd Business School, Oxford University’s Executive Specialised Master’s Degree in Consulting and Coaching for Change.

“Going back to university after 18 years was energizing,” he says. “I was trying to use the material we were learning on myself, so questioning: who am I, what kind of leadership style do I have, what do I like or don’t like about my leadership style?” He was particularly intrigued by Co-Academic Director Marc Thompson’s lectures on being a change agent, explaining that a leader can adopt a “bricoleur” or DIY approach to change, being pragmatic and not beholden to one strategy, but finding the approach most appropriate to the context with the resources available.

 

THE DIY APPROACH TO CHANGE

Frédéric Beziers considered the term “bricoleur” in terms of his own leadership style, noting he can be blunt and very direct, but also friendly, open and cracking jokes to put people at ease. So when he caught himself being curt or closed-minded about an idea, he challenged himself, asking “why am I behaving this way?” What would a bricoleur do, he wondered? He concluded that while his assertiveness was a part of his personality, he was most likely mimicking the “sales-driven and conquering” leadership style of others. Delving deeper, he read the book “The Ambiguity of Play” by Brian Sutton-Smith. That’s when four words came to him: Playful Leader, Serious Change. The Masters student had found his thesis topic.

 

FACILITATING LEADERS’ CREATIVITY AND PROBLEM-SOLVING SKILLS

And so Frédéric Beziers set out to explore how playfulness might complement a leader’s need for structure and agency as a change agent; how it might help leaders better engage with their followers, and; how playfulness might facilitate leaders’ creativity and problem-solving skills.

Frédéric Beziers’s first assumption was that many people think playfulness is not a term that applies to leadership, because leadership is serious, and playfulness is un-serious. His second assumption was that playfulness provides a space for creativity and allows for the strengthening of relationships with followers. Being more playful, he assumed, would allow leaders to learn more, including more about themselves, and allow for more innovation.

Frédéric Beziers read the literature on playfulness, and why playing and being playful is essential to human development. “It’s a space where we learn,” he says. “We play all the time as children because we learn, we test things. And I think that a leader should ask themselves ‘is what I’m saying the right way forward, or should it be tested?’” He applied the definition of playfulness put forward by Proyer and Jehle in 2013: a playful adult can be described through the use of several factors, namely: Humorousness, Cheerfulness-Uninhibitedness, Expressiveness, Other-Directedness and Intellectuality-Creativity.

 

A SPRINGBOARD FOR LEADING CHANGE

To test his hypothesis, he conducted 24 semi-structured interviews with leaders both within and outside his own organization, as well as two focus groups. Bringing together the concepts of playfulness and leadership intrigued many of his interviewees, but most felt it would be very difficult to do.

His study suggests that the construct of playfulness can provide a useful springboard for the leading of change in organisations, but only under certain conditions. Among his conclusions, Frédéric Beziers found that playfulness is more positively perceived by leaders than initially thought; however, most leaders remain uncomfortable with its use in their leadership. Younger leaders were not more open to the use of playfulness in their leadership role than more experienced ones, and the use of playfulness in leadership was strongly correlated to its perception as being non- productive and risky. Many leaders interviewed expressed fear that by being playful, they would discredit themselves. Frédéric Beziers was surprised that many women leaders were also locked in the standard posture of serious equals strong leader.

During the research process, participants raised the concept of authenticity as being essential to using playfulness in a professional context, as in, if it’s not part of one’s personality, being playful would appear to be inauthentic. “But in reflecting on this, I discovered that authenticity is a very shallow concept for me because it doesn’t mean anything,” says Frédéric Beziers. “So the way you are now is not going to change for the next 40 years? And this is what you call authentic? This is a bad concept, and people were using that as a way of trying to reject my concept of playfulness.” Frédéric Beziers rejects authenticity as a concept worth applying to leadership, “because leaders should evolve all the time. Like a parent, a leader has to be many many things.”

 

TRIGGERING CREATIVITY AND CLOSE RELTIONSHIPS

Frédéric Beziers concludes that current leaders’ viewpoints on playfulness tend to over-estimate its risks in the context of leadership and organisations, because they presume it will be seen as a deviance from the norms of leadership already in place. However, those same leaders confirm that the use of playfulness can improve relationships with their followers, which in turn supports a sense of community and facilitates learning. Leaders perceive playfulness as a reliable vehicle for developing their creative skills, allowing for failure while testing new ideas. And the study strongly suggests that thanks to its ability to trigger creativity and closer relationships, playfulness can be a beneficial attribute for change leaders in organisations.

Being able to bring different perspectives to a discussion is a form of playfulness. “It’s in the brain,” says Frédéric Beziers. “Play with things, adopt different perspectives, contradict yourself, do not think that everything that you believe is the truth. You can play with your sense of self, and ask why am I so strong on that? Why is it such a firm belief? What would be a different view? How could it be valid?”

Frédéric Beziers believes playfulness is teachable, but may be difficult because most adults have forgotten their playful selves. “It’s not difficult, it’s just lack of practice.”

Based on the thesis by Frédéric Beziers for the Consulting and Coaching for Change Executive Master