I have noticed a pattern in my coaching conversations. I find my clients experiencing a tension between wanting to bring more fun and joy in their leadership style and yet somewhere feeling they need to hold back and appear more serious and “professional.” They are intellectually convinced that making space for more joy on their teams is the right thing to do but don’t always prioritize it. They know that adding more fun and play will boost creativity and innovation yet it can be a bit uncomfortable for a “senior leader” to show up more playfully. 

And here’s the fascinating part – when I’d ask people leaders they admire and what specifically they appreciate about them, the skill of creating joy and bringing playful energy is often called out yet it is hard and scary to embody and practice themselves. 

Here’s my belief about this –

Many of us have been conditioned that we need to be serious to be taken seriously.

Yet, the truth could be far from it. 

“Being” more joyful and playful in our leadership style and “doing” more fun with the people around us strengthens the connection, brings more humanity, and creates room for better business outcomes. 

And, we can do serious, important, world-changing work AND find moments of infusing joy and play alongside it. These aren’t mutually exclusive and play isn’t just for preschoolers. Adults with important roles and responsibilities have permission to bring more of it into our workplaces. Creating a culture where milestones are celebrated with play, joy is a priority and there is room for different types of fun is a powerful leadership skill worth building. 

A few years back, I was leading a large weekly meeting and in the early days, I was anxious and nervous and would have moments of self-doubt. I didn’t realize I was defaulting to being more transactional and serious in many of my meetings and interaction with others. I too was getting caught up in this belief of showing up in a more serious demeanor to indicate the intensity of the work we were doing. My manager shared some incredibly powerful feedback one day – “Neha, are you aware that you are coming across as too serious and you rarely smile?” It was a powerful moment because I had every intent to infuse joy yet I wasn’t modeling it myself as a leader of the group. And bit by bit, I committed to infusing joy into a critical meeting that I was leading and more importantly into the culture of our team. There were hard moments, many of them and I was far from perfect in any way but coming back to joy, connection, and community was always a guiding principle in my own leadership style. I was fortunate to have many other leaders who also shared a similar belief and despite being a multi-year multi-team high-stakes project, joy was an important value many of us strongly believed could be prioritized and drive business results. 

And here’s the thing, prioritizing joy is a practice, a leadership behavior not something that happens once a year at an offsite. It is about how you show up, how you inspire and empower others to show up and the rituals and structures to support it. Here are some fun ideas – Do a weekly 5 min team dance break, play joyful music before the start of a meeting, spend a few minutes at a team meeting sharing pictures from vacations, or do an international potluck during the holidays. 

One of my favorite memories from my time at Linkedin was the creation of really fun team videos. I was always a bit conscious, nervous and anxious when I had to be on any of them. I don’t like being in the spotlight! But, watching my fellow co-workers dance, sing, and dress up always brought a smile and added to the sense of community.

Over to you, what comes up for you as you think of joy and play as a leader? What are your fears or concerns? What kind of culture or impact do you aim to create? Are your actions laddering up? And what are your ways to bring joy and fun to your teams and those around you? Who are the leaders you admire that do this consistently? What impact do they have on you? 

If you are looking to bring more rituals into your team(s), here is one of my favorite books on this. While this isn’t exclusively focused on joy, many of them will bring more of it to those around you.

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