Mark is a young executive, who has just landed a big promotion. He’s been told that leadership skills will be crucial for his future success. However, there’s a problem. He’s intelligent and hardworking, but, frankly, not especially empathic in his dealings with other people. He can be bruisingly blunt when giving feedback and sensitive listening isn’t a strong point.

So what’s he to do? Should he “work” on himself by setting SMART goals, drafting a timetable for achieving them, seeing a psychologist to help him understand the causes of his undeveloped people skills and monitor his progress, etc.?

Professor of Organisational Behaviour, Herminia Ibarra, an expert on leadership and learning, thinks not. Instead, she recommends playing rather than “working,” flirting with possible alternative versions of himself that his hardworking, blunt-talking dominant self has kept under wraps.

We think of children as needing to learn how to do things properly from adults. Nevertheless, they also do an immense amount of learning – about themselves, their friends, and the world they’re in – through play. Maybe adults can take a leaf out their book of play, or “committed flirtation” as Ibarra calls it.

Playing with alternative versions of ourselves opens doors to possibilities that “work” often forces us to keep shut. It’s a mode of being rather than a prescription. Essentially spontaneous, it can’t be prescribed, anyway.

Can Mark experiment with a more jovial, lively, engaging aspect of his personality? In play, he can try these “selves” out for size and, if they don’t fit, he hasn’t “failed,” as he might do when in “work mode.” He can just pivot to some other aspect of his personality that doesn’t usually get much social exercise.

Playing with your self-concept involves flirting with fantasies of a possible self, then embodying and enacting normally suppressed possibilities. And it’s not kids’ stuff: Ibarra’s research demonstrates that such “committed flirtation,” which seems so much less efficient than “work,” is the most productive way to develop your leadership skills.

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