The ‘fun’ in leader-fun-ship

Add value to relationships, loyalty, commitment


Leadership and “fun” are not often linked in the same sentence, let alone in the same word. However, as a student, observer, and teacher of leadership, I find that leaders who are having fun in their practice deftly share the energy, engagement, appeal, dedication, exuberance, and pleasure with others.

Leonard J. Marcus, PhD, director of the program for health care negotiation and conflict resolution, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Leonard J. Marcus, PhD

Imagine going to work and meeting all those qualities at the front door. Leaders who are having fun impart that same joy to others. It’s a great source of motivation, problem solving capacity, and morale enhancement. And when the going gets tough, it helps you and others make it through.

What takes the fun out of leadership? There are difficult decisions, complicated personalities, messy histories, conflict, and, of course, the “buck stops here” responsibility. Leadership is a lot of work, going above and beyond your clinical duties. Many arrive at leadership positions without the requisite training and preparation, and success at leading can be elusive for reasons you can’t control. There are budget constraints, difficult personalities, laws, and rules. For some leaders, it is an oxymoron to place leadership and fun together. For them, leadership is not fun.

At the 2018 Society of Hospital Medicine Leadership Academy in Vancouver, this combination of fun and leadership arose in a number of my conversations. I asked people if they were having fun. I heard the enjoyment, excitement, amusement, and playfulness of leading. And I could see these leaders – who found fun in their work – were transmitting those very qualities to their followers. They talked about exceptional productivity, expanding programs, heightened commitment, and a knack for overcoming occasional setbacks. In many ways, “work” works better when people are having fun.

How might putting fun into your leadership style, practices, and assessment make you a more effective leader? Start with our definition of leadership: “People follow you.” Whether people follow you, in fact, has to do with a lot more than just fun. Your clinical expertise and skills, your management capabilities, and your devotion to the job all are ingredients in what makes you an effective leader. Add fun into the equation and relationships, loyalty, and commitment assume new value. That value translates into the joy, fulfillment, and pleasure of doing important work with people who matter to you.

I once asked a C-suite leader at Southwest Airlines about fun and leadership. He told me that fun was incorporated into the airline’s company culture. It was also included in his annual performance review: He is responsible for ensuring that his subordinates find working for him to be fun. That week he was hosting a barbecue and fun was on the menu. He explained that this attitude is baked into Southwest philosophy. It transmits out to frontline employees, flight attendants, and gate agents. Their job is making the passengers’ experience safe, comfortable, and, at the same time, fun. That combination has made the company consistently profitable and remarkably resilient. (My wife and her university friend – now both therapists – call this a “fun unit,” which made their grueling graduate school work far more tolerable.)

How do you translate this lesson into your leadership practices? First, don’t expect others to have fun working and following you if you aren’t having fun yourself, or if you are not fun to be with. Assess your own work experience. What is it that you truly enjoy? What tasks and responsibilities detract from that engagement and delight? What provides you that sense of fulfillment and value in what you are doing and the direction you are leading? Dissect your priorities and ask whether your allotment of time and attention track to what is really important. What changes could you make?

Second, ask those same questions of the group of people whom you lead. Assess their experiences, what supports their sense of accomplishment, their satisfaction with their job, and their engagement with the people with whom they work. Every one of your followers is different. However, on the whole, have you built, encouraged, and rewarded team spirit among people who value being together, who are committed to the shared mission, and who together take pride in their achievements?

Finally, ask yourself what would make your work experience and that of your followers more fun? Similarly, what would better engage the patients, family members, and colleagues you serve? Ask a leader you respect – a leader enthusiast – what they find fun in their leading. As you become more engaged, you likely will become a more effective leader, and those who follow you will be so too. What could you do to elevate the work experiences of others and thereby the value, success, and meaning of their work? Fun has many ways to express itself.

Bottom line, ask yourself: Are you someone who others want to work for? Do you care? Can you bring out the best in people because of who you are and what you do?

Your work is as serious as it gets. You are at the cusp of life and death, quality of life decisions, and medical care. The fun comes in putting your all into it and getting the satisfaction and interpersonal bonds that make that effort worthwhile. Often, you have the privilege of making people healthier and happier. What a gift! Excellence can be fun.

Keep an appropriate sense of humor in your pocket and an ample supply of personal and professional curiosity in your backpack. Relish the delight of something or someone new and pleasantly unexpected. The fun for others comes in your rewarding flash of a smile, your laugh, or your approval when it matters most.

Your job as leader is tough. Health care is hard work and the changes and shifts in the health care system are only making it more so. Imagine how a dash of humanity and relationships can make that all far more bearable.

And have fun finding out.

Dr. Marcus is coauthor of “Renegotiating Health Care: Resolving Conflict to Build Collaboration, Second Edition” (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2011) and is director of the program for health care negotiation and conflict resolution at Harvard School of Public Health, Boston. Dr. Marcus teaches regularly in the SHM Leadership Academy. He can be reached at [email protected].

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