Observe an elementary school playground and you will also observe a hierarchy among the children. There are leaders and there are followers. Unlike the corporate world, however, the leaders are not paid more, do not receive more vacation time, do not have their desk by the window and do not have a commanding title. So why do they lead?

The followers on the playground do not report to the leaders. Bullying aside, the followers are not compelled by the authority of leadership and are not accountable to the leaders nor are they dependent on the leaders. So why do they follow?

The typical playground is an ecology that demonstrates how human beings recognize and respond to certain leadership traits regardless of authority. It is an environment of who influences, inspires and defends versus who is in charge. Consider these schoolyard games and the underlying leadership traits they highlight:

  • Dodgeball: Two children are chosen as captains. They pick their teams motivated by relationships they value and kids with skills that will help them win. As a leader, do you value relationships? Do you lead your team to win?
  • Simon says: If “Simon” makes the game too hard, players will rapidly drop out and the game will end. “Simon” must give clear direction to those playing while he challenges them to win. When leading, do you give clear direction? Do you challenge your team to win?
  • Follow the leader: The leader is followed if she does not execute moves that are wildly outside the followers’ comfort zone or if she moves so fast that she loses the group. She will also try to make it fun. Fun is underrated in the workplace. Does your team value fun? How do they define fun? Do you understand what your people are capable of and stretch them or do you move so fast you lose them?

By watching our own children or grandchildren interact on the playground, we can learn a lot about why leaders lead and why followers follow. We can see the most effective leadership traits in action.

If you look closely, you’ll observe that playground leaders are goal-oriented, competitive, decisive and assertive. The same can be said for corporate leaders. The difference is that playground leaders value relationships, lead by influencing and inspiring, and understand that if they take the fun out of the game… nobody will want to play.