Leadership, a word comprising many characteristics and traits, is likely one of the broadest words in the English language. People have been studying the concept of leadership for quite some time, and it would be near impossible to come up with a definitive definition of what leadership truly comprises. What the word means to each individual may differ and include aspects like teamwork, culture building, management, communication, motivation, guidance, authority, control, and likely hundreds of other blanketed terms. Recently I have been thinking about leadership characteristics more and more in my everyday life, constantly reflecting as to how I can be better within my professional role as a Technical Leader of a soccer club. In my reflections, I have come to the realization that just about everything, every aspect of being a good leader, centers around inspiring others to have fun. Simultaneously, I think this has likely been under-appreciated in the research and literature surrounding the concept of leadership, in favour of other buzzwords like “guidance”, “influence” and “power” that are also too broad. Here is why fun is so important to leadership, and likely an underrated aspect when considering what makes someone a “good leader.”
UNDERSTANDING THE INDIVIDUAL
It’s unquestionable that leaders can’t exist without followers. Most leaders work with teams or groups of people, rather than with only one individual. Mentors and those that work with individuals can certainly be thought of as leaders, but when we as a society think of leaders, we typically think of people who can herd the sheep to where they need to go…so to speak. But what often gets lost is the notion that in order to inspire groups, you need to inspire individuals. As a result, understanding each individual within a group is essential to a leader’s role. If a leader can understand each individual, understand their personality, recognize the way they want to be communicated to, and understand why they have decided to be a part of the team, that leader can do a far greater job in their quest to inspire. For example, in my job as a Technical Leader, it is really important to understand how much feedback and what type of feedback the coaches want to receive. If I go about it in the wrong way, I risk diminishing that coach’s experience and as a result, I may end up demotivating them rather than motivating them. If coaches feel demotivated, how are the players going to feel? So it is really important for me to ensure I am communicating with coaches in a way that makes sense for their personality, their values and what they want out of their coaching experience (e.g. level of support, level of independence, etc.). In other words, I need to understand the coach first, then communicate in a way that is fun for them and fits their needs. Then I can inspire them. Then I can motivate them. Then I can be the type of leader that you would want from someone with the title ‘Technical Leader.’ For me, it all comes down to understanding the individual’s needs and then making it fun for the individual based on their needs.
To take another example, when I was teaching a Coaching & Leadership course to undergraduate students, it was really important for me to have a general grasp on why each individual was in the course. Maybe it was required, maybe the course was able to fit nicely into their schedule, maybe they were interested in the course content, or maybe they had aspirations of being a coach or developing their craft as one already. Understanding that aspect allowed me to communicate with the students and give feedback to them in a way that (hopefully) suited their needs in the course. I felt like I achieved that and I felt like as a result, students were able to have fun in the course, and even feel inspired/motivated to show up and learn. If those same students were not enjoying things, they wouldn’t feel as motivated, and they might not have performed as well in the course. It also comes down to sense of belonging, as many scholars have noted, but belonging is ultimately centered around one’s ability to have fun. If individuals are not having fun, they won’t feel like they belong.
POSITIVITY & SHARING YOURSELF
To me, there are so many aspects of leadership that I value and hold as being of high importance, but the vast majority of them come back to this idea of having fun, more so than I think people recognize. For example, as a leader, it is important to establish the type of environment and culture that you want the group to abide by and buy-into. But you cannot get them to buy into that culture if they are not having fun. For example, an old-school sports coach might use punishments to get certain values and beliefs instilled within their team. But this is unlikely to actually inspire change or buy-in to that coach’s values and beliefs, as punishments simply aren’t fun. It’s no surprise then that some of the top sporting associations are starting to emphasize this concept of fun more and more. The British FA have recently established the motto “We only do positive.”. After years of research, the FA realize that if people are constantly receiving negative feedback (whether it be from coaches, parents, teammates or whomever), they won’t have as much fun, and as a result, they won’t feel inspired to perform to their potential and stay in sport. Canada Soccer’s Respect in Sport campaign follows a similar train of thought.
So how do you as a leader inspire fun? Well, understanding each individual and actively trying to make a connection with each person in the group is key. Open communication and honesty is also always a good policy, and helps to achieve that buy-in. But it’s also important for a leader to show their personality. A leader can be extraverted or introverted. They can be loud and proud or quiet and reserved. It doesn’t matter. But a leader needs to actually show their personality, so that followers can feel like they understand the leader. If followers don’t understand their leader, how are they going follow them? This is one more reason why open communication is so key to success. Openly communicating successes, failures, happenings and events, allows followers to always be informed on what’s happening and never feel out of the loop. When they feel out of the loop, they don’t feel respected and valued, and they don’t have fun.
There’s an old saying – “You shouldn’t care what other people think of you.” But I think that you should. As a leader, you need to care about whether or not people like you. Not because you have a desperate need to be liked, but because if they don’t like you, they’re not going to want to work for you and they’re not going to reach their potential.
INNOVATION AND CHANGE
Another aspect of leadership that I think is particularly underrated is the notion of innovation. Innovation means that you’re not afraid to do things differently from the way the dinosaurs once did, for the betterment of either your future or your organization’s future. It means not just following the common dogma just for the sake of it, but being creative to establish new ways of doing things when appropriate, regardless of risks and barriers. By trying to do things differently, you can run the risk of your followers not buying into your practices, out of lack of readiness for change. But you may also reap the rewards, especially if you can communicate to your followers why the change is necessary. Innovative practices are unsuccessful without buy-in from others. As we’ve discussed, that buy-in comes from open and honest communication with your followers, in a way that suits their needs. It comes with meeting individuals where they are at and understanding what makes them tick. In other words, it comes down to communicating things in a way that sounds fun for them. People don’t want to do things that are not fun. Therefore, leaders are unsuccessful if they are engaging in practices and/or developing new ways of doing things that are not fun. So I encourage every single leader out there to reflect on the aspects of their personality that make them fun, and consider how they can bring out those positive qualities more and more not just in their work, but in their every day life. I also encourage leaders to think outside the box and consider how they could do things differently in their role, why change might be needed, and how they can communicate that in a way with their followers where buy-in can be achieved. At the very least, doing those two things will be a great start to being a fun leader, and more effective in your role.
So there it is! Why the concept of fun is an underrated aspect of leadership. It may sound simplistic, but the ability to ensure followers are having fun is an essential aspect of leadership that is often neglected in all the discussion surrounding what makes someone a good leader. Thanks for reading and see you soon!