Why the Best Leaders Act Like Playful Puppies

Here are three ways to improve your leadership style -- with play.

learn more about Brendan Boyle

By Brendan Boyle

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I remember trying to be super serious when I started teaching design and innovation at Stanford University more than 20 years ago. I wore a tie and sport coat. Ha! I thought it would help people identify me as a teacher -- and make me look more important. I epitomized what Steven Dubner and Steve Levitt, authors of Freakonomics, discovered when they said they "[could] find no correlation from being serious to being really good at what you do." True, I was well prepared; I could recite the content backward. But, I read from my notes and slides. My body language alone told students I wasn't an engaging professor. Flash forward a few years: I would lead team meetings at IDEO with my laptop open, hoping to multitask and get a head start on the day. Again, my body language and delivery were terrible and the energy in the room suffered.

Related: 50 Rules for Being a Great Leader

It was then that I met Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of The National Institute for Play, whose life's work has been to study the science of play and promote its importance. He taught me something I've reflected on many times since: the wisdom of the happy puppy. Puppy behavior is a great example of receptive, enthusiastic body language. Puppies have an excellent play stance, which looks something like this: front paws out, eager-looking face and eyes that sparkle, nearly shouting "throw the ball!" If you're a leader, trust me when I tell you that everyone is looking at you and taking note of your play stance. Nowadays, I arrange my class at Stanford in a big circle so everyone is engaged and making eye contact. It's like being back in kindergarten. No one is checked out in the back of class, watching the latest Netflix drama on their phone. It's the same for my team meetings at work; we begin each meeting by sharing inspiring, energizing stories.

University of Virginia Professor Rob Cross, who studies innovation in the workplace, says leaders fall into one of two groups: "energizers" or "de-energizers". (I was definitely in the latter camp before I met Brown.) Think about your last interaction with a boss or co-worker. Did you walk away inspired or weary? Here are three tips to avoid boring your colleagues to tears or, worse yet, being an energy vampire at work.

1. Improve your play stance.

When you're the leader in the room, check your body language. Are you on your phone? Is your laptop open? Are you "cobra-ing" (leaning back with a puffed-out chest and arms folded)? All of these signal you're not interested in what's being said. Think back to the puppy, eager and ready to play. His eyes are making contact, his front paws are bowed, ready to spring into action. According to Brown, the puppy's posture signals to others that he can be trusted and wants to play, not fight.

Related: 22 Qualities That Make a Great Leader

As Brown describes in his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, "play signaling" lets humans relate to one another and builds trust. Each of us has the capacity to adopt a play stance: arms relaxed with palms facing upward, smiling and making eye contact. Try adopting a play stance several times a day. When your body language communicates that you're a friendly, trustworthy actor, people will naturally engage with you more often.

2. Start every meeting with a creative workout.

One of the biggest contributors to an ongoing lull in the office? Meetings. But, it doesn't have to be that way. We have a tradition at IDEO of starting each week with a Monday Morning Meeting. We spend the first 30 minutes checking in on the team, hearing about what's inspiring them -- from movies to hikes to cultural events -- and how we might work together to build on that positive energy. By engaging the team this way, we're ensuring folks are excited to show up each week and connect with their coworkers.

In my class at Stanford, I spend the first 10 minutes leading some type of creative workout related to the lecture topic. I'll ask the class to do a quick sketch, create a crazy mashup invention or write a skit. These creative warm-ups elevate the energy in the room and have become the most popular part of the class. Recent research shows that engaging people in brief, fun exercises boosts their productivity by 12 percent. So, next time you're leading a team meeting, try kicking it off with a creative warm-up.

Related: 15 Ways to Lead With Effective Communication

3. Treat everyone on your team like they're the CEO.

One leader who continually inspires me is Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford Motor Company. He treats everyone he interacts with like they're also a CEO. His enthusiasm is sincere and it permeates his conversations, generating excitement around virtually any topic. I remember when Hackett invited me to run a creativity workshop. Even though more than 25 people from his team were there, he took the time to draw out the opinions of the quieter, more introverted voices in the room -- especially those without high-ranking titles. When you treat people the way Hackett does, they walk away feeling heard and appreciated -- a key component of relationship-building. Working side-by-side with your team members and listening to their input makes it easier for your organization to jump headfirst into new creative challenges and take them on together.

While there's no set formula for becoming a better manager, I've found that if you put in an honest effort using these tips, and maintain a playful mindset, you'll be a more energized, thoughtful leader (and make work a less boring place!).

Related Video: Do You Have the 7 Qualities of a Great Leader?

Brendan Boyle

Founder, IDEO Toy Lab

Brendan Boyle is an IDEO Partner, founder and leader of IDEO's toy invention studio known as the Toy Lab; adjunct professor at Stanford; and speaker on building a culture of innovation. He is also the instructor for the "From Ideas to Action" course on IDEO's online learning platform, IDEO U.

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