Can We Actually Develop Leadership Through Play?

How does play impact leadership (and followership)?

We’ve all heard of groups of executives going on an adventure – a whitewater rafting trip, a wilderness “survival” excursion, serving as a crew member on a sailing vessel – as a way of developing leadership. There are also more “free form” types of play activities, such as business games, role-playing activities, and on-line simulations? The question is how much do these “play” activities build participants’ leadership capacity.

A theoretical review by Ronit Kark, a professor of leadership studies, from Bar-Ilan University in Israel and Exeter University in the UK, explores how and why such play activities might serve to develop leaders, and she points out some of the conditions required for development to take place.

First, it is important that these play activities constitute a “safe space” for leaders to explore themselves and their behavior. These developmental sessions should not turn into competitions or into organizational assessment sessions.

Second, there must be time for reflection for the leader to understand what she or he has learned.

Finally, the lessons learned in the play activity needs to be transferred to the workplace – to actually improve the participant’s on-the-job leadership.


What are some other ways that play can help develop leaders and team members?

Kark argues that such activities as participating in a challenge allows participants to imagine future and alternative leader identities (identity play) and reflect on their leadership roles. This can help managers develop novel and creative identities they can develop into. There is also evidence that play activities stimulate creativity and adaptability. Structured team activities can help leaders better understand how to coordinate and collaborate with others. Finally, play activities away from work can serve a revitalizing and energizing function when the leader returns to the workplace.


What are the benefits of play activities for followers?

·      Participating in structured play activities can help build collective leadership by:

o   Improving personal relationships among team members

o   Helping members to synchronize and coordinate activities

o   Allow members to take on a shared leadership identity

So go out and play – a fun and possible way to develop your leadership identity and skills.



Kark, R. (2011). Games managers play: Play as a form of leadership development. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 10, 507-527.

Originally published at Psychology Today