#102: What I Learned on a Playground that Actually Helped Me as a Leader

Do you remember your grade school report cards? There were grades of “outstanding, satisfactory, and unsatisfactory.” And rather than just subjects, there were grades given for social skills and work habits. One of these skills was “works and plays well with others.”


I never thought much about being graded on “social skills” until I started working. Early in my career, I realized why it was so important that I know how to “work and play well with others,” this skill forms the basis for all corporate personal interactions! Who would have thought that a skill developed on the playground when I was six would be so important to my career development?

Of course in the business world, we do not refer to it as “working and playing well with others.” No, we created a whole field of study called “organizational development.” Organizational development tries to explain how people interact in the workforce, and how those behaviors affect corporate profits.

Interestingly, most of our formal education centers around knowledge, not on developing our ability to work and play well with others. While I was graded on this skill in first grade I don’t recall any teaching on the subject. Because of my business focus in college I did get some classes on organizational design and development, but mostly it was finance, marketing, and other such stuff. In my 36-year corporate career, I had a couple of seminars on diversity. But that’s about it.

Sad to say, but true, most of our ability to work and play well with others was developed on the playground when we were six or seven. Fortunately, the Bible provides a wealth of information on the subject. It provides guidelines for personal behavior, our interactions with others, and importantly, has a lot to say about employer – employee relationships.

Leadership Lessons from the Playground

If you want to get a grade of “exceptional” rather than “needs improvement” in working and playing well with others you need to know how build esprit de corps in your organization. The military describes esprit de corps as, “the common spirit existing in the members of a group and inspiring enthusiasm, devotion, and a strong regard for the honor of the group.” Developing high group morale, or esprit de corps is not an easy task. Here are eight steps you can take to build esprit de corps from Dr. Alan McGinnis’ book Bringing Out The Best In People.

1) Place a premium on collaboration.

There’s a saying, “Two minds are better than one.” Encourage people to work together rather than separately. Reward those who succeed through collaborative efforts.

2) The need to belong.

Employees want to belong. They want to feel needed, appreciated, and accepted by the group. Make it easy for people to gain acceptance in your group.

3) Quality Control.

Peer pressure can be a wonderful thing for a leader. Peers will often hold each other to higher standards than the boss will. Don’t assume responsibility for quality control on every little thing, it is far better for the group to hold its own members accountable for high performance.

4) All for one and one for all.

Remember the call of the Musketeers? It was “All for one and one for all!” Leaders should be in it with the troops and every member of the group should understand that their performance is a reflection on the group. Army generals Patton and MacArthur, despite their shortcomings, earned the undying loyalty of their troops because they were devoted to the welfare of their men.

5) Promises.

Nothing destroys morale as fast as the broken promises of a leader. Don’t make promises you cannot keep, and be honest with employees on the day that you have to explain why the raises you promised won’t be forthcoming after all. A reputation for integrity can take a lifetime to make, and only seconds to lose so guard this characteristic with all your might.

6) Fairness.

Believe it or not, there are bosses who structure contests so that their favorite employees will win. They think no one sees through them. What fools! As a leader, your first job is to create a well-defined set of work principles and expectations that you can enforce with complete fairness across your organization.

7) The preservation of the individual.

While employees want to be members of a group they don’t want to lose their own identities. Make sure people are valued for their unique skills and specific contributions to the group.

8) Fun.

All work and no play mean increased employee turnover. While business is serious and the stakes are often high, make sure that work includes some humor.

One Final Thought

A group whose morale is high is stronger and more productive than any single individual. They can create more and do more, at a lower cost than individuals who are serving their own self-interests.

The writer of Ecclesiastes provides a wonderful view of the strength of a group; “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (Eccl. 4:9-12).

The key to strength in numbers is unity of mind and purpose. But the key to morale is job satisfaction and satisfaction from our work comes from a focus on God. He meant us to work and gave us skills to make us successful. But success, no matter how you define it, is hollow outside of a personal relationship with Jesus. If you don’t think so look at the entertainment stars who have everything money can buy but search madly for meaning in life. They search with drugs, alcohol, and special causes but as Solomon said, these are all meaningless without God.

Bonus Whitepaper

What I Learned on the Playground that Actually Helped Me as a Leader is also available in the form of a bonus whitepaper. This 11-page bonus whitepaper includes more in-depth content covering the world-view of organizational behavior, Biblical principles of organizational behavior, 7-elements needed to build organizational morale, some great quotes, a case study, and a key points summary. You can download it here:

Join the Conversation

As always, questions and comments are welcome! Have you worked in an organization where there was low morale, strife, or poor relationships between employees and management? If so, what impact did that have on you as an employee? Have you had to turn around an organization with low morale? If so, how did you do it?

I’d love your help. This blog is read primarily because people like you share it with friends. Would you share it by pressing one of the share buttons below?

Categories: Relationships | Interpersonal Relationships

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Sophia Bowles says:

    “Esprit de corps” means a strong regard for the honor of the group and I think that this sense of strong organizational culture is extremely rewarding. Number 1: Place a Premium on collaboration suggests, “reward those who succeed through collaborative efforts.” I think that collaborating is rewarding in itself and that the employees who engage in collaborative efforts will feel more rewarded than those who do not. This feeling derives from the sense of belonging as identified in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. I think being a cohesive unit is fundamental in work environments so that employees feel they are valued in their workplace and feel as though they truly identify with the corporate mission. I think faith in the corporate mission and strong organizational culture create a positive climate. I’ve experienced a workplace with an unstructured training experience and value strong leadership because of it. I think it is important to be able to trust the corporation and I think that comes from a structured training program, identifiable mission statement, and a strong corporate culture where each individual is clearly valued.

  • Ariel Wong says:

    As a leader, I think it would be beneficial to have “family outings” with co-workers to boost morale. These outings may include enjoying a meal at the boss’s home or a trip outdoors. In my experience, leadership retreats are great in the sense that people get to know each other and build relationships outside of the work setting. The hope is that every person gets to know someone else on a deeper level than just recognizing a face and attaching a name to it. As a leader, you may have to create the playground so that others can learn and hone in on valuable leadership skills.

  • When we’re children we can enter a playground and in short order start playing with other kids. There is no sizing up, no republicans and democrats. Just the simple joy of playing. It’s sad that with adulthood we lose the simplicity of having fun with others. I thought of this as I read your interesting post, Ron. Thanks!

  • Lisa Olivarez says:

    I think social skills are highly valued in the workplace especially now more than ever. Skill in a trade or specialization or concentration is good, but employers seem to be seeking out employees that are not only knowledgeable but have good social skills as well. Also I though he comparison of being accepted as part of a team and still being treated as an individual is really important, but at the same time so is fairness. So while it is important to validate employees on jobs well done, there needs to be a balance present among all employees, which as a leader might be challenging.

  • Matthew Alvarado says:

    I believe that more people should talk the playground approach when it comes to leadership. The principles that are together to us when we are young are often forgotten as we age. We tend to complicate things more as time goes on. Why not revert back to the basics and reflect the same kind of approach. two things that i think are lacking in today’s leadership approach from many people is the need to belong and the promise aspect. These are two vital parts of being a leader that is often forgotten. Two simple principles that we are taught at a young age could bring to much more effective leadership practices to the workplace. More importantly, having fun. Fun? a word that is not commonly associated with the workplace that should start to be used a lot more often. if you create a fun work environment through your leadership practices then productivity would go through the roof.

  • Josh Romero says:

    As a kid, I always found it difficult to truly feel comfortable in a social setting whether it was on the playground, a birthday party, or even in the classroom. Today, I am far more comfortable around people and can often find way to build a rapport with my peers but it still doesn’t feel natural to me and I find myself waiting for other to approach me first. Some of the struggle I face professionally seem to come from some of the weaknesses I have socially and it really affects my confidence which may cause me to not be as open to others. When I close myself to others I feel as if there is a certain level of trust that they don’t have for me. Social skills are so important because of the ability they give to work with other and in many cases those skills that help you effectively communicate in a way that people trust you can help you close a big deal.

  • Matthew Puliz says:

    Leadership is so important in the world because groups can do so much more than an individual. The key to any group is having a good leader or leaders in that groups. All eight of the different steps are extremely important to being an effective leader. Each group is different and the leader needs to understand and lead each group differently. It is interesting that you bring up the playground in regards to leadership. I wish more leaders thought about the playground in regards to leadership. Many leaders are too focused on the task or goal of the group. I believe a good leader makes getting to the task or the goal a fun experience. This might not be the most efficient way but the output will be a lot better. A leader must keep the moral up in the group or the group will fall apart.

  • Samuel Han says:

    The unity of an organization is the very life and image of the corporation, restaurant, and organization.
    The 8 steps listed by Dr. Alan McGinnis’ book Bringing Out The Best In People, are good qualities in creating esprit de corps, in an organization! Always encourage collaboration and reward collaborative work! People need to belong and feel safe and secure that they are in a safe working environment to create a mind of unity to look out for each other and help each other. Without it, it would be more of a hostile work place.
    Keeping promises are very important, and it is better to not make promises that you will not be able to keep. It loses the trust of those that trust you and depend on you to get the job, promise, or responsibility done. Finally, having fun while working together is key to work stress free and bond together to create a stronger unity that brings forth a true esprit de corps like those you see in the military.

  • Jamie Montgomery says:

    As I was reading the different lessons from the playground, I began to realize I was using these everyday and learning about them still to this day. I am a communications major, with a marketing minor, and each of the lessons listed above have been discussed in my classes. My favorite one listed above was collaboration. We are learning about collaboration in my conflict management class and how this is the best way to help resolve conflicts. I feel this is a large issue because not many people understand working together is always better than trying to be on your own. Like stated above, it was even stated in the Bible to work together. This point is something I want to work on in my life. Collaboration is such a key to success, I feel it should have more emphasis on it in everyday life.

  • Adrie says:

    Out of the eight steps I consider number 7 the most difficult to obtain. The preservation of the individual is difficult because people are encouraged to work as a group and make unanimous decisions. The challenge for leaders is to recognize the abilities of each individual to support the group as a whole. I found it interesting to see that playground lessons are the foundation for something as important as organizational development. In my experience I have seen the lack of individuality become a huge problem. All team members offer something unique that helps the team reach its goals. A good leader is able to build a team by helping individuals become a dynamic team member.

  • Malachi Kobayashi says:

    I think the dynamics of organization or group can be so easily modified and surprisingly have a great affect on the dynamics of the group. In my experience with classes I have discovered that simply the bond of the classmates and the enviroment greatly can construct a positive engaging learning enviroment or not. I had a class that took the time to introduce the students and get them to interact with each other. This may have been seen as a time waster to some but what it did was build a relationship with the students in the class and break the ice between them. This started building relationships with the students and the students instead of coming to class quiet and to themselves came with energy and chatting with the students next to them. This matched with a responsive lesson plan resulted in an engaging course that I enjoyed and learned a lot from. One thing that is often forgotten is that a group isn’t a singular object or person. Too often we seperate the group from the leader and we put the activity of the group on the leader but the group outnumbers the leader and it is upon the interaction of the group that determines what they do and how they do it.