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This post is about entertainment as leadership strategy; It’s generally a bad idea. 

Shallow times

We are living in volatile and shallow times. The acceleration of life is such that we are losing touch with some ground principles of living a rewarding and prosperous life. Speed, fragmentation, constant accessibility, multiple distractions, instant satisfaction of needs, the abundance of choice (and therefore its absence) and a creeping deskilling of people lead to an existence without boredom, patience and tolerance.
To have all is not a good basis for a happy life. It’s by making of choices that we experience our freedom, which is always limited. Freedom finds its source in scarcity, not in abundance. Scarcity leads to creativity. Abundance leads to consumerism. Scarcity leads to appreciation. Abundance leads to indifference. Scarcity leads to reflection. Abundance leads to shallowness.
People have no tolerance for boredom. There is always something around the corner to experience. Check your mails. Write a blog. Call a friend. It’s a pity that we have lost the capacity to be bored. Because when you are bored you have to think and decide what you will do with the time that is passing slowly. It’s your responsibility. When I was young and I told my mother that I did not know what to do, she practically told me to bugger off. It’s a great gift to be told that. Imagine that she would have laid down her work and had sat down with me to entertain me.


And that’s what we are looking for. Entertainment. One of the greatest entertainers of our world, Robbie Williams, sings about this. Let me entertain you. Everything needs to be entertaining: work, marriage, learning. But this means that someone has to do it for you. The message is: entertain yourself. And do not mistake entertainment with existence.

So what does this mean for work? As an employer or leader one should not be tempted to start and entertain people. Yes. Work can be fun. Work is nicer when you have fun doing it. You will enjoy work more when you are having fun. That is all true. But the employer is only partly responsible for that. The employee experience depends on the context a leader creates and the attitude (and reaction) of the people working in that context.
I saw a video once of John Chambers of Cisco handing out lollipops and candy to his people. The good thing was that he came on the shop floor and talked to the people. But when I saw that video I was annoyed by it. What does it mean when your CEO gives you candy. It means he has become the Chief Entertainment Officer.

Give people choices

The best thing you can do is to give people choices. Create a context in which choices have to be made on every level. Do not preprogram every decision. Leave space for interpretation and deliberation. Be tough when needed. Popularity is not a target. Let people take the hard road. They won’t learn from the easy one. And at the end, it won’t entertain them. Don’t give out candy as a standard policy. It makes you look silly.

Stay close to yourself

As a leader you need to stay close to yourself and your character. I think that authenticity is overrated and as normative as anything else. You do your best to serve and protect people in your team and to guide them towards the required results. It helps if you can do that in line with your personal values and preferences. But if you want to entertain, you are not yourself. You are a showman or woman. So forget it. Don’t try to entertain. Just do what it takes. Have fun with it and make sure that others have fun. But they should not have fun because of you. They should have fun because the work is rewarding, meaningful, exhilarating. You’re not a clown. So do not try to entertain.
I have written a book about sustainable leadership. It will be published in Dutch, French and English as of april 2016.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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