7 Reasons Creative Leaders Should Play More Games

Lieselotte Nooyen
Article by: Lieselotte Nooyen
7 Reasons Creative Leaders Should Play More Games

According to Plato, “You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”


That’s one of the reasons I like to play games when I work with people or when I'm facilitating a THNK program. It helps me to truly see the people I work with. Not only just see them, but also see their light and joy, their best and happiest selves. It’s almost magical to see how an individual or a group loosens up when they laugh and play. It’s as if someone turned on the light in a shaded room and suddenly everything looks different.


The games I use most often come from improvisational theatre. These particular games have helped me to be a more playful and flexible person myself, and also taught me creative leadership skills.


Here are 7 reasons why leaders should start playing more games straight away:

1. Learn real-life lessons without real-life consequences

Well-designed learning games can imitate life or work. They trigger similar behaviors so that you can observe your automatic responses and behavioral patterns to learn from them. The great aspect of this when playing is that the consequences in a game don’t have real-life implications, so it’s safe to experiment with new behavior. Once the game is over, you know that it was just a game and leave with a lesson learned.

2. Practice failure and risk-taking

Traditional schooling and upbringing encouraged us to think straight and play safe. Therefore, most of us have very little experience in risk-taking and failure. The regular loop is to either a) take a risk and succeed, or b) take a risk, fail, feel ashamed and stop trying.

Improv games teach us to take risks, succeed or fail, be curious about why, laugh, and try again. This all helps us to learn. There is one infamous game at THNK where we celebrate “unexpected data!” when we mess up. Revelling in failure allows you to practice an innovative mindset.

7 Reasons Creative Leaders Should Play More Games 3

At THNK, participants play a game where we celebrate failure as unexpected data. Being unafraid to take risks (even if it means making an error) is essential to an innovative mindset.

3. Play connects

In non-competitive play, everybody comes in as equal. Language, job, traditional skills, and status fall away when we play. If the environment is set carefully, people feel safe to be themselves. As a result it’s easier to connect to one another’s true self than in more traditional environments.

When a situation is just outside of our comfort zone, we put down our regular defences which makes connecting with others quicker and more direct. Play also provides a sense of belonging. There’s an old expression that goes “the opposite of play is not work, it’s depression.”

4. Playing opens the mind and explores possibilities

To me, play, make-believe, and storytelling are the oldest forms of research.

When you let go of the need to be right, you can come up with unexpected statements or solutions that were blocked before. What might come out of your mouth if you blurted your first thought, without first deciding if it made sense? Sure, it might be silly, but every once in awhile, brilliance emerges.

Through playful scenarios we explore different solutions and postpone our judgement. When we’re “just playing”, we can come up with new and fresh possibilities.

5. Play brings you to a state of flow

Play is an act that happens fully in the present. With no thought for the past or future, being “in the now” immerses you in the process of the activity.

Positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi defined the flow state as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” When we’re completely immersed in an activity, time flies and our egos fall away.

The experience of presence is especially true for the games we use at THNK because they come from improvisation theatre, where being present and acting on your feet is a vital mindset and skill.

In this TED Talk, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asks, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.”

6. Play prepares you for complex situations

When playing a game, we often don’t know all the rules and have to deal with continually changing circumstances. Such conditions train us to practice the mindset necessary for navigating complex situations in life or at work.

Play is often non-linear and those who try to manage by planning, will fail. You can make it easier on yourself by doing some preparations; Understanding the underlying network structures will help you to react quickly to new events as they unfold.

7. Play frees up your creativity

We are all creative beings, but many of us mistakenly believe that we are not creative. This again harkens back to how we are educated as children, as many schools aren’t designed to foster creativity and instead value conformity.

What if we were instead empowered to use our imaginations?

Playfulness helps us to not take ourselves so seriously; to let go and be present in the moment without the fear that we’ll look silly. Once we get our egos and inner censor out of the way, creativity can happen. Not only by you, but also through you.

Want to play?

We documented THNK’s most popular learning games in a book called Eye Openers, a Practical Guide.

All the games in Eye Openers are designed to provide the experience that enable discovery of an insight, skill, or mindset from THNK’s Leadership Model or Creation Flow. That’s why they’re called Eye Openers– they’re designed to be fully experiential and have the potential to enlighten you.

After you play one of the Eye Opener games, the next step is to debrief the experience. The debrief is an important part of the process to drive the learning home. Since this is often the hardest part for the facilitator, the book includes a guide containing debrief questions and answers. The questions are the ones I heard most in 15 years of facilitating those games. With this easy-to-use guide, sharing what you learned becomes just as fun as the game you played.

Let the games begin!

Want to play games with us while developing your business and your leadership capacity? Apply to join the THNK Creative Leadership Program.

A 6-month part-time learning journey to help you realize your fullest creative leadership potential and scale your world-changing enterprise.