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Kinder Exeter: Playful Leadership with Justin Featherstone


26 June 2021


Thursday evening's session during the Kinder Exeter Festival was on Playful Leadership with Justin Featherstone.


Following 18 years in the military, Justin is now an honorary fellow at the University of Exeter Business School, an expedition leader and keen member of the Playful University Club. Alongside this, he and Kinder Exeter organiser Maarten find time to play Dungeons and Dragons every week.


What is kind leadership?


Before breaking down his ethnographic work, Justin tasked us with a game. The group was split into 2 villages, each coming up with their own method for deciphering which symbol Justin was thinking of. There were many different methods put forward, with some opting for a digital spreadsheet to be used, and some opting for a more childlike process of elimination. Following a debate, the elected leader concluded that both methods could be used as they got the same result. One participant remarked that there was a “brain-ful and a brain-less method”. Justin explained that this statement encompassed what it means to do kind leadership.



Everyone has a process that will work for them, and a leader’s role is to create an environment for practice and play, allowing ideas to surface.


Food for divergent thought


Following this, Justin explored a study on divergent brains. They took 1600 people and tested them on 5 tests over 16 year intervals. The percentage classed as ‘genius’ decreased from 98% at age 3-5, to 2% for over-25s. Justin then explained that:


“We train and condition young people to be convergent in their thinking and then we get to masters level and people have meltdowns because they don’t know how to ask questions.”


Nurturing differences will enable people to unlock their full potential, and it is a leader’s job to encourage this. Getting in touch with our playful sides may help buck the trend observed in the case study.


Lessons learnt from the Konyaks


The Konyaks are one of the major ethnic groups in Mon district of Nagaland in northern India. They are ruled by hereditary kings known as Anghs and were the last practicing headhunters in the region.


The Konyaks took the heads of those in other communities to ensure the success of their own. Once they had taken a head, their face would be tattooed by the queen, a tradition that has now been lost. There are just under 20 face-tattooed headhunters still alive in the region and in January 2020, Justin spent a month living with them to ask what leadership meant to them.


Despite being highly dangerous, with conflict and loss ever-present until the late 20th Century, there was representation at every level, even though they were patrilineal societies. Everyone was an active contributor to the society in the Morungs where the traditions and crafts were learnt. They were places of community, understanding and, at their heart, places of kindness.



Children are looked after by elders, and grandparents are central to how the community functions. One elder said: “not everyone can become a king, but all can be wise”. The Konyaks express their emotions without abandon, with elders saying that “a tear in a warrior is nothing to be ashamed of. We find it hard to speak emotions, so we sing them”.



The headhunters Justin interviewed exemplified the importance of kindness in leadership:


"Drink more tea"


The Konyaks follow Matkapu, meaning ‘standing for the truth of things’. This means that before every decision is made, the implications for the community are considered. In our Western societies, there is pressure to speed up in the name of neo-liberal productivity. Justin said that one of his leaders told him to "drink more tea" as a rule to take more time for our decision-making processes.


To finish, Justin left us with some final words of wisdom. He explained to improve our wellbeing and resilience, we should:


  • Create an environment of openness and vulnerability

  • Use kind words instead of "business bullshit bingo"

  • Use spaces where so-called kings are there to support and create relationship


Read more about this concept of kind leadership here!

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