Leadership: Are We Having Fun Yet?

In the realm of leadership the conversations are almost always quite serious. We discuss characteristics and traits like integrity and core values and mission statements for guiding teams of people. We review how leaders make mistakes, and how they fail. Process improvement, ROI, P&Ls, the list goes on. One topic that rarely comes up is “fun.” And why would it? Leadership is serious stuff right? Profits are at stake. People’s livelihoods are dependent on the successful outcomes of business plans. Fun is “frivolous” and has no place in conversations about important topics like leadership – or does it? Culturally we are a very driven society. There is a push to succeed, particularly on an individual basis. In business this often translates to company cultures of, “if you are car isn’t in the parking lot on Saturday, don’t bother coming back to work on Sunday,” which translates to 60, 80, or even 100 hour work weeks. The thing is high levels of stress are well-documented to break us down and cause serious health problems. Over-worked, exhausted people are less likely to be creative, innovative and productive and are more likely to be out sick.

So what does fun have to do with it? Quite a bit if you read, "Imagine: How Creativity Works," by Jonah Lehrer. Activities that we usually consider unproductive or wasting time often bring forth the creative breakthroughs and innovative thinking that are critical in business today. Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com seems to embrace this philosophy. He is leading one of the most successful companies in America and his focus is on happiness – for his customers AND his employees. Here’s a quote that’s typical from articles about Hsieh and Zappos:

“And yet, this mild-mannered fellow leads a company that is entirely uninhibited. Interviews are held over vodka shots, bathrooms are plastered with “urine color” charts (ostensibly to ensure that employees are hydrated but also just to be weird and funny), and managers are encouraged to goof off with the people they manage….

Hsieh tries his best to keep up with the goofy, libertine culture. Every day, he blasts a steady stream of playful messages to 350,000 people on Twitter. (Before taking the stage at a conference earlier this year, he posted this missive: ”Spilled Coke on left leg of jeans, so poured some water on right leg so looks like the denim fade.”)” (quote from Inc. interview)

Hsieh’s approach to business is radical. He sits with his employees rather than in “an important office,” and he encourages their creativity and “goofy fun” daily. Of course there is more to his approach than having fun, but it is a critical piece of the formula and an happy jumping peopleelement that is seriously lacking in American business these days.

Many companies have “enforced fun” like the annual company picnic, the annual Holiday Party and such. These events are often met with reactions ranging from “this is annoying, but I have to go,” to all out dread by employees and feel unnatural since they aren’t in sync with the daily culture. Employees often attend to be sure they get their “points” and to be seen as being loyal and enthusiastic, (whether they really feel it or not).

So what would happen to America and American business if we “lightened up?” What would happen to you as a leader if you allowed yourself to have fun? You may argue this wouldn’t be natural for you, but according to reports, it’s not natural for Tony Hsieh either. He is described as a fairly shy, reserved person, yet he pushes himself out of his personal comfort zone because he understands the bigger picture benefits to his company and business. In these complex and stressful times the idea of having fun seems counter-intuitive - yet given what is emerging about the conditions for creative thinking, it may be a critical leadership move to make.

What would happen if you not only allowed, but encouraged your employees to have fun? What if fun wasn’t once or twice a year “because you should,” but it was a daily part of coming to work? Might be worth experimenting with this one…