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  • Writer's pictureNeža Krek


We kicked off the second season of Fresh Forward two weeks ago with a conversation with Carola von Szemerey. This will be a talk on my own, with you. I see these solo episodes as ways to bring certain aspects of education, innovation, and facilitation, to reality. Most of my clients in education feel like there is this theory and all is good. But how do you bring that to reality? How do you translate that into day-to-day life? When you are an educator, corporate trainer, educator in a university, lifelong learning organization, or whatever environment, there is this bridge between what happens in a training room and reality. Mostly this is disconnected.

My solo episodes are aimed at making that bridge easier. If you already know me, you know that I like 3 things. Fun, I really like to have fun with what I'm doing. I am also a sucker for depths. And at the end of everything I really like practical applications. If we don't put stuff into practice, if we can’t see how this could work in our own daily lives, then we didn't do anything. I'm not a philosopher. But I do like to think at a larger scale and have lots of conversations with my clients.

Today's episode is here to unpack one of the statements I get so many times:

“Neza, I want to have more fun as an educator. Everything is so serious, I feel no joy.”

I would like to contrast that with feedback I got from a brilliant educator who joined my program about transformative learning. After six months she said that this program brought the joy of teaching back for her. This made me cry. If this is what learning about facilitation and transformative learning can bring to an educator who has done everything in her life. She only had a few more years until her pension and was exhausted. She was looking for different ways to engage with her students, with herself as an educator and with the content she was passing on to her students.

Realizing that bringing facilitation into a classroom could result in such a profound shift made me feel that power. Today I want to discuss playfulness leadership. It's defined as knowing when and how to utilize play as a strategy and process to energize people to achieve goals. But when I listen to “playful leadership is about knowing when and how to utilize play as a strategy” I am bored already. It feels like a tour.

There are a few pitfalls that can happen when we go towards facilitating spaces where people can be playful and curious. I've heard that from my clients as well. My clients started facilitating and loved it. But they were told that they were just playing for the sake of playing, that it was not serious or inclined, and was called by a colleague who said:

“we are not doing this, we are doing the serious thing here”.

You come to a certain point where you sprinkle and sparkle. They did not see the essence she was bringing, even though it was playful. So I understand there is fear among educators and trainers when they want to relax a bit and step in the arena of having fun and being playful.

So many times it's ostracized as something that's not serious and not professional. Perceived as no substance. I will bring guests on this podcast that come in with the proposal of doing all the funky stuff with playful theater. But that's their packaging and what they're getting into. They come in with the proposal of doing all the funky stuff in order to experience a different way of doing things.

But this is not what I'm talking about here. I would love for you to consider how you can bring playfulness as an attitude to your teaching. If it's serious, playfulness can be taken very seriously. It unlocks such potential. Playful leadership is about strategy, knowing where and when to apply certain things. For me, playfulness leadership has 2 components. First is playfulness, which for me is not about being happy all the time. That's just exhausting. I am not happy all the time. If you use playful leadership as an approach to education, it feels like you need to be in a constant euphoria feeling.

Of course I am blowing it up right now to get the contrast across. But this is what I hear from clients. There is a bias towards playfulness in society. It comes across as flat, no depth and that you are not business savvy enough or not professional enough. Playfulness is an attitude towards yourself, your students and the content you are dealing with. It is an attitude that brings curiosity, lightness and at the same time depth. Playfulness is openness towards whatever is in the room. Whether you have a shitty situation yourself, you embrace that and play with it. And I'm curious about your thoughts as well.

Let's say you are stepping into a situation where there's something really hefty happening, for example there's grief or sadness, you can play with that situation. That is the attitude and talking about how you can play and take that situation as an opportunity to make something out of it. To open your mind and heart. Somebody is crying in my classroom. Instead of going into panic mode, you put on your curiosity glasses and step into the classroom with the attitude. You are prepared to be surprised. Let's see what happens. That's part of the playfulness leadership that I propose instead of playful leadership. You need to know when and how to utilize play as a strategy and process to energize people, towards outcome. The other part of playfulness leadership is leadership. I have immense trouble with leadership and the way it's mostly used nowadays. It's getting better. But let me give you an example of where I'm coming from. I was a scout, and I am so grateful for my experience because I am who I am because of that.

However, there was a moment where I realized that the way I was groomed in leadership and perception of what leadership is, was not healthy. It was not good for me. I was trained in this tunnel vision of what a leader is. That the leader is the one who has the heavy shoulders with all the responsibility. Like a lone wolf that needs to make all the decisions and it needs to be infallible. Always right. This is not the leadership I'm talking about.

Many years later I had a conversation with a brilliant facilitator who is also going to be a guest on this podcast very soon: Doris Gottlieb. She proposed a mind boggling idea of leadership: what if leadership is a verb? If you look at it as a verb, it's such a relaxing way of thinking about it. It's fluid, it's a process, an attitude and it gives you space to play. That's why playfulness and leadership for me go so well together.

I'm coming from the same place as all of my clients that I'm there saying:

“I'm afraid that I will not be taken seriously.”

When I had those fears I saw them play out. People were saying:

“you're doing this facilitation thing, but you are just playing right?”

I still see people having that opinion of facilitation, as in making a learning process where people can step into their own powers. This is the definition of facilitation on a certain level for me. But many people still see facilitation as “just playing some games. You're doing some icebreakers”. That is not facilitation for me.

With time, I learned how to live playfulness leadership. That brought me some respect and love from my clients. In addition to great results for my clients and their students. I'm no longer taken as somebody who is just playing, even though I'm an extremely playful person. I want to give you some hints on how to do that.

First, playfulness leadership is not toxic positivity. I refuse to be positive just for the sake of being positive. That is not playfulness leadership. Leadership is also creating a space where people can be who they truly are, have the feeling of agency, and for them to step into and do whatever they want to do. If you think of bringing playfulness to your classroom I would like to encourage you to play, have fun, and incorporate different methods, tools, and attitudes so that learning can be more playful and lighter. This will never take away the depth that you want to bring.

Depth and playfulness coexist. They are married. The more playful you can be in terms of attitude, openness, curiosity, discovery, and experimentation, the deeper your students will be able to go, the deeper the experience, and the better long-term results they will have. Whether you are a corporate trainer, university professor, lifelong learning trainer or you name it, the applications are endless. Now let's get into practice.

The first commandment of playfulness leadership is no toxic positivity, it will not give you the results you want. The second one is to dare to develop your own style of facilitation. There are so many teachers that would love to experiment, be goofy and do things differently. But they don't allow themselves to do that because they feel that they need to be a certain way. If you need permission from me, here it is: you have permission to be who you truly are. Go and be yourself and develop your own style. First I only emulated teachers and facilitators that I really admired. At a certain point, I was just bumping into walls because I was trying to be someone who I was not. The more I know myself, the more that I put myself in the way I facilitate, the easier it is for me, the easier it is for my students or participants and the better the results are.

So no toxic positivity, develop your own style, and give yourself permission to be who you truly are. The fourth one is to follow this attitude of curiosity, discovery, and experimentation. The fifth is to lean into the power of failure. This is almost a taboo topic in education. You should know that you should not feel the need to be perfect. Even what you wear into your classroom can tell what your attitude is. I just gave a first kickoff at a university here in The Netherlands, and I asked the people to wear something that represents them as educators. One of the teachers had a very simple and comfortable outfit. She led the presentation as a reflection of what she would normally never wear in the classroom.

This got me thinking: what type of wall am I creating between me and my students?

I am so happy with her reflection because she led with this curiosity. Even the way I dress tells a different story than what I actually want to be in the classroom and what type of relationship I want to build with my students. That for me is playfulness leadership. She is creating a space where she can be who she truly is. I can guarantee you that this will result in her students having more relaxation and having permission to be who they truly are.

Another commandment of playfulness leadership for me is to respect your timing. I have talked about this in my episode about invitations. It's a principle that I follow myself. Look again, are you ready for this? Or are you not? You are also giving permission to your students to follow their own timing. That means that you need to learn how to let go. I will talk about this in a different episode because it's a chapter of its own. Respect your timing. If you're not feeling giddy and fully happy then respect your timing. You're still playful because you're open to re-examining, to look again at what fits you in this very moment. That will bring more authenticity to your classroom and more connection to your students than if you had to fake it.

The last commandment of playfulness leadership for me is to follow your why as an educator. A few weeks ago I mentioned that in my training and asked why they had become educators. If you slid into it, why are you still one? Why are you still in education? The amount of work you need to do as an educator is absolutely bonkers. It's very difficult to slow down and ask yourself why you are still doing this. Is this still aligned with who I am today as opposed to 20 years ago when I started?

What are the reason and original joy that brought you to be an educator in the first place?

Dare to follow your why as an educator. Not only with yourself, but also dare to put that why into your classroom.

As a reflection, one of my clients found XYZ extremely important. But never thought about bringing that into her classroom because she thought she needed to be objective. So I asked:

“can you really be objective?”

No, you can't, because we are human. What would happen if you infused your teaching with your personality? And then giving your students permission to share their own and have a healthy discussion about it. This will provide so much more joy and will open the space for you to have fun. To bring in different methods. You will dare to dance with people like I do, draw, and dare to bring art. Do interdisciplinary research if you want to. Or interdisciplinary connections.

All of these things are suddenly possible if you lean into the attitude of curiosity towards yourself, the relationship with your students, and the content you are delivering. If we go a step further into practicality, what does that actually mean? That means that instead of getting into a classroom, doing your own thing, and putting the slides on, I challenge you to rather think about how you can create a learning environment that is so safe that your students can explore what is important to them.

That means that you will need to learn how to defer judgment. Everybody judges. I judge. Why not talk about it? Catch yourself when you're judging and then do something with that information about why you're judging. Why you are judging them and deferring their judgment is a whole new level. That is a very practical way to create a safe space. Another one is a space where you encourage experimentation. Where you try new ways of engaging your students through dance, drawing, walking, connecting, and storytelling.

I can tell you that I get reports from my clients that students are taking ownership of their learning process, they start seeing possibilities, and they create new solutions that they have never thought of before. It trickles down into how they see themselves as agents in their own lives. And last but not least, I would like to mention that they are all of a sudden okay with experimentation, even though that might bring them to fail.

If you are able to lean into this playfulness leadership, go away from toxic positivity, develop your own facilitation style, and lean into the attitude of curiosity, playfulness, and fun while also respecting your timing and giving yourself permission to be who you are and daring to follow your own why as an educator. Then you will be able to create these awesome learning experiences where students will come out refreshed, engaged on a deeper level, and ready for the world. You have just made this beautiful bridge from theory to practice. Your students will be able to translate what they heard in your classroom to their own lives. And that is what education is about!

To prepare people for what is out there. Not to create self-sufficient bubbles that have no connection with reality. This was my attempt at helping you go more towards having more fun as an educator. I hope this gives you permission to experiment and have fun without fear. If you want support in that or if you think that this is what your organization really needs: please reach out and together we'll figure out how I can help you. What burning questions came up during this episode? Connect with me on my LinkedIn: Neza Krek.

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