The Best Leadership Exercises

By Sean Stevenson – Latest Revision January 3rd, 2021

To be the best, you must practice consistently. 

Leadership exercises are a highly actionable way to improve your organization’s capabilities.  Think of them as a series of drills, or a form of training.

An organization’s communication, teamwork, and even its productivity, all stand to benefit from routine leadership exercises. 

Making this training a habit for your own company can improve upon lingering potential within the rank and file.  It will also develop new leaders who bring their own unique capabilities and ideas to the table.

Leadership exercises also have the effect of improving morale; since people will be working to accomplish goals together, strong team dynamics can flourish. 

It is advisable to practice these at least every quarter for best results.  Monthly would be even more ideal.  Although, we recognize many people live incredibly busy lives, and may not have that additional time to commit to their workplace. 

Here at Leadershipdean.com, we have developed some of the best leadership exercises available today.  To both save you time and offer you greater value, we have compiled a list of these activities below:

1. The Leadership Swapping Exercise

This exercise is very simple.  There are no groups required, only individuals. 

Simply have everyone consider their best personal quality.  Give them some time to think about it. 

When everyone is ready, let each person explain aloud what their best personal quality is, and how it applies to leadership.  Take note of each response and categorize it as best you can on a sheet of paper.

Once all your team members have spoken in turn, and explained how their quality relates to leadership, divide them into the categorical groups you have organized on your sheet of paper.  This process does not have to be exact.  The idea is that you are putting similarly-minded people together.

Now, have each assigned categorical group discuss their leadership qualities together.  Tell them to ask themselves how they can apply it to their day-to-day duties and lives.

Once the conversations have had some time to mature, ask that each group share their findings aloud.  Give each group an allotted time in turn to speak.

Now, offer your own observations about the activity as it progressed.  What you saw, elements that interested you, how people behaved, and even your own opinions; these should all factor into the discussion as you promote it.

This activity is a great way to get your team to learn about themselves and each other.  It is also a great way to determine which people have emerging leadership capabilities.  Approaching these aspiring leaders at a later date, and offering them more responsibility, is certainly something I have seen work very well in many organizations.

Think of it as a way to “scout” the existing talent within your organization, all while exercising team-building.

"It is literally true that you can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed."

-Napolean Hill

2. Highlighting Leadership Activity

This is a great one for promoting conversations about the nature of leadership.

Have your teams divide into groups of no more than six people.  Ask them to discuss momentous figures in history that served as leaders of their time.

After some moments have passed, and everyone is chatting away, introduce a new concept by asking that each group choose a representative to speak for them.  Once each group has an assigned spokesperson, have them continue their discussion on historical leadership for a bit longer.

After some time, have the groups meet.  Each representative should now be instructed to present the leader their group admires most. 

If the groups need more time to flesh out their ideas, let them, as it only promotes teamwork.

As each team presents their favored leadership figure, be certain to highlight desirable traits and common leadership characteristics.  Draw similarities between leaders where possible, and continually promote discussions as they evolve.  You don’t necessarily want to steer people towards conclusions, but you can certainly help them along if they become stuck.

This exercise greatly improves teamwork capabilities and delivers a sense of engagement to those participating.  Many report a feeling of commitment to their sense of what it means to be a true leader.  As an added benefit, this exercise reveals key traits and qualities that everyone can work towards mastering.

A highly recommended and powerful leadership activity overall.  Use it to get your team talking to each other in a creative way.

3. The Building Leadership Exercise

Divide your team into a minimum of two groups and provide them with materials so that they can build something.  The item they are building can have context within your organization, or it can be something entirely random for amusement. 

The materials can be most anything, so long as they can be used to build with.  Whether its Lego, scrap materials, or otherwise.  

Whatever makes sense in your environment is what you need to obtain for your team beforehand.  If tools are required, then these too must be procured ahead of time and carefully considered. 

With your people and the relevant materials gathered, assign each group to a specific location.  Ensure they each have a specific material “pile” (again, tools included if necessary) for them to build with. 

Explain to them that a certain problem must be resolved immediately.  Further, explain how they must build an item (or “fast product”) that will provide the needed answer to this important issue. 

A popular example we like to use in our own exercise, is that each team is trapped on a separate island.  To escape their maroon, they must build a seaworthy craft before a typhoon overtakes the shoreline. 

Challenge them to build the specific object of your choice, using only the materials and tools you have provided them with. 

Encourage them to simply do the best they can as the exercise continues.  As an observer, you should make your rounds monitoring each team.  You can of course offer some observations, but do not interfere outright. 

Once the teams have completed their construction, have them all stand atop or near their creations.  Then have them explain aloud why they built their structure the way they did, and who was assigned to what task.  Lastly, ask them how they delegated these tasks, and why they felt each assigned individual was best suited to completing that specific job.

As a final bonus activity, move the structures around if possible.  If they hold together, declare victory.  If they fall apart, discuss what might have been done better.

This activity is an excellent way to introduce team members to one another if you have fresh recruits.  Moreover, it is a highly effective way to promote teamwork and develop interpersonal dynamics.  These qualities will endure long after the exercise has ended, so pay special attention to progress as it occurs. 

4. The Hypothetical Leadership Scenario

Have your employees congregate into a secluded room and divide them into small groups.  Have them nominate someone to be their group’s spokesperson. 

When they are ready to move on, ask them to solve a predetermined problem.

An example of this would include, “What if a production process within our company suddenly failed because of you.  What if there was no way to fix it?  How would you replace the lost income from that product and how would you prevent this issue from happening again?”

This is a hefty question that immediately places the onus on the groups being asked.  Yet that’s the exact purpose if the exercise.

You can become pretty creative with the questions you might potentially ask.  You’re limited only by your own imagination and ability to improvise.

When the team has discussed amongst themselves and the spokesperson has delivered their solution, ask why they feel this is the best course of action.  Also, ask how each idea came to fruition, and what part they each felt they played in the outcome.  Be sure to write these down, as you will use them later.

Once all the teams have delivered their solutions, gather the different parties together in one room.  Share their different answers without naming who came up with each solution, and then have everyone discuss the chosen outcomes.

This leadership exercise is a great way for small teams to demonstrate logical analysis of root causes while under pressure.  Also, they must hold themselves accountable, while evaluating the potential solutions as part of a larger team. 

You can have extensive conversations about how each team fit into the larger organization with their solution.  This is a great way to promote a team’s sense of purpose within your company.  If done correctly, they’ll understand that they’re part of something much larger than themselves. 

There is really no limit to how you can build lines of communication and a sense of purpose for your team, using this technique.

5. The Blind Leader Exercise

This exercise tends to be a fun one and works as a great ice breaker. 

Start by dividing everyone into teams of two.  Provide each team with a blindfold.  Have each team talk get to know each other for a few minutes while -for added effect- you set up an obstacle course. 

Ideally, your obstacle course is made up of many simple items.  Furniture tends to work very well for this purpose in my personal experience (I’ve built lengthy obstacle courses entirely out of chairs, and the teams all had a hilarious time of it!). 

When ready, have one person in each team blindfold themselves, and assign the other to guiding the blindfolded person through the obstacles using only vocal directions (back, forward, left, and right come to mind!).  Further, you can allow the guiding individual to circle around the person for effect as they guide them. 

Just make sure the guide understands that they are not allowed to physically touch the blindfolded person, as that would defeat the purpose of the exercise.

As an added benefit, you easily host this exercise in the outdoors, at a park, or anywhere that you feel might benefit the overall experience. 

This can be a great opportunity to build trust and create powerful professional relationships that will serve to greatly benefit your organization.

“Teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

-Patrick Lencioni

6. The Unbroken Chain of Leadership

This leadership exercise encourages the entire team to work as one. 

Have everyone standing side-by-side, shoulder to shoulder in a circle.  Once assembled, they should each cross their arms and place their right hand in the right hand of the person across from them.  Immediately after, have them place their left hand in the left hand of another person who isn’t standing beside them.

Once all team members have conjoined hands, there should be an intermingled chain formed amongst the circle.  Challenge them to untangle themselves without breaking their circle’s chain. 

It takes careful coordination, but if the chain is ever broken, tell them they must restart the entire process.

It is recommended to let this exercise finish in its own good time.  In this way, your teams can work together without external pressure.  This makes it a great bonding experience for everyone involved.

Once the chain has been untangled, and the task completed, take your team out for lunch.

In terms of a team-building exercise, this is perhaps one of the most effective.  Moreover, it encourages aspiring leaders to take charge of a situation and lead their coworkers to a positive outcome.  Problem-solving naturally plays a heavy role here too.

7. The Know Thyself and Others Exercise

Have your team members sit in a circle, with you on the outside informing them of what comes next.

Now, task everyone with thinking about their favorite things in life.  Ideally, ask that they narrow it down to one single thing if possible.

When everyone is ready, go around the circle (in one direction) having each person recite what their favorite thing(s) are in life, and why they are so essential.  Encourage them to share as much detail as possible, or to give examples as to when this favourite thing played a part in their daily life.

This exercise is a great bonding experience amongst team members.  It can also serve as an ideal icebreaker for new recruits.

8. The Ask Your Group Exercise

During this exercise, each team member must come up with at least two unique questions (Ex: “Who has brown hair?”) to ask the entire group.  When a question is asked, those who fall into the category must raise their hand (ex: In the case of the aforementioned question, those with brown hair would raise their hands). 

When everyone is ready, have each person ask their questions aloud.  Count how many people raise their hand in response. 

As you tally the responses to the questions being asked, find indicators of what the most common traits are amongst the participants.  Depending on the questions being asked, these results can be humorous or interesting in nature.

After everyone has asked their questions, and you have tallied all the responses, share your findings with the group.

This exercise is excellent for developing interpersonal exchanges and creating connections between team members.  Moreover, it promotes conversations that often reveal leadership qualities in those participating.

9. The Leadership Debate

This activity tends to be lengthy.  It can take some time, or even several days to finish.  If you have the opportunity to do so however, it can be a very effective way to develop your team’s understanding of what it takes to be an effective leader.  Moreover, it will highlight toxic elements of leadership that are to be avoided.

Begin by dividing your group into several teams.  Don’t tell anyone what the purpose of these small teams are just yet.

Have each team nominate a leader.  Once the leaders for each team have been established, take them aside.  Explain to each leader that they must organize their team so that they are fully prepared to debate on the assigned matters of leadership.  Be sure to coordinate teams so that one side is “for” the subject at hand, whereas the other one is “against.”

Decide on a predetermined subject related to leadership.  A personal favorite of mine is to debate whether or not Napoleon Bonaparte was a great leader.  I find giving the debate teams some context of both the “good and bad” of Napoleon gives them incentive to do further research into the subject matter. 

Often, I organize the pros and negatives on a sheet of paper, which I provide to each team.  I intentionally leave it vague, so that they will investigate further with their own due diligence and research.

Allow each team to use their available electronics for research purposes and give them a few hours to collect the necessary data.  Then have them formulate their ideas in preparation for the upcoming debate.

On the day of the debate, try to encourage everyone to keep an open mind.  Ensure that everyone knows that the debate should remain friendly, and that the ideas being explored are for everyone’s benefit.

After organizing everyone into their assigned debates, be sure to take note of elements that are brought up consistently.  At the end of the exercise, discuss what was learned, what key events made people invest in their opinions, and what traits are key to effective leadership.

As an extra portion, you can even score teams based on how many different points they came up with.  An added incentive would be to include a prize for the team that scores the highest in this regard.

This exercise is incredibly useful for creating powerful team dynamics.  Pairing groups based on who they work for, or who they may not yet know very well, can greatly promote interdepartmental communication.  Moreover, you will be reinforcing healthy ideas about leadership in a positive way. 

For bonus points, ask your teams how the ideas they’ve learned about can be effectively applied to your own organization.  This may even serve to grant you insight into “blind spots” you had not considered before!

“Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”

-Albert Einstein

10. The Leadership Essay Review

Another one of our lengthy leadership exercises!

Before starting this exercise, create a predetermined concept (or concepts) for your teams to write about regarding leadership.   Print out pages with the concept(s) explained in detail.  You want to include just enough information that each team will understand what to write about.

At the meet, have your people divide into various groups.  Once everyone is settled, distribute your pages to each group.  Ask them first to read the page and then have them discuss it amongst themselves.  When everyone is ready, explain that you would like each group to write an essay together on the subject you have given them.

Be sure to note to each team that they must all participate; each essay is a group effort.  Moreover, they should each write an agreeable portion of the essay to keep things fair. 

They must organize themselves effectively so that they are prepared to complete the assignment by the deadline you have set for them.

As a bonus, tell them that the team who completes the essay first (including editing!) will be privy to an agreed upon reward.  Often, rewards such as these add an element of fun to the exercise, so consider this carefully.

Once an essay is complete, have a different team read and critique it.  Do this for each completed essay, until every team has critiqued at least one other team’s finished work.

When all of this is complete, retrieve the essays for your own review.  Take some time and do your own assessment of each essay, along with the critiques the other teams have made. 

The pleasant irony here, is that most of your work will ideally have already been done for you.  It should simply be a matter of taking some notes and “mopping up” any loose ends as you see fit.

Present your findings to the teams.  Be sure to include the most common traits of leadership that everyone seemed to agree upon (there are always at least a few of these).  You can even have people read portions of their own writing that they are most proud of and have them discuss it further with the group.

This exercise is absolutely incredible for promoting analytical thinking amongst your team members.  Moreover, it will reinforce the positive qualities that best reflect how to lead others. 

Next time, have your people write about your own organization in the same way.  Tell them to reflect on how existing processes and structures can be improved upon.  Using this, the quality of conversation in your organization is bound to improve, and creative ideas can be openly expounded upon with relative ease.

11. The Tables of Leadership

For this leadership exercise, organize several tables in a circular formation.  Once the tables are setup, devise an activity for each table that can be completed by a team effort.

Divide your workers into several teams.  Now, assign a leader for each table and quietly explain to each the method of completing the table’s task.

Explain to the teams that each table’s leader can only delegate and communicate the work that has to be done.  They cannot actually do any of the physical work themselves. 

Begin the activity with each group being directed to one of the tables.  As they begin their work under the direction of the table leader, record how long it takes them to complete their task.  When everyone is finished, move each team to the next table, but keep the leaders where they are.

After each team has completed the circuit, and been to each table at least once, compare their overall completion times.  The team with the fastest overall total time spent working is the winner.

This exercise is a great way to promote teamwork.  It also gives some individuals the chance to practice their leadership skills in a fast-paced environment.

12. The Towers of Leadership

For this exercise, you’ll need to find your own unique items that will allow your people to build.

In our own leadership exercises, we love using Lego or twigs with marshmallows.  There is no limit to what you can use yourself, but the idea is that it must be useful for the process of building a structure.

Divide everyone into teams and explain that they must build the tallest structure possible.  Be sure to mention that the completed structure must stand on its own and that it will be measured at the end of the exercise to be compared with the others. 

The team with the overall tallest structure wins.

You can give them anywhere from ten minutes to a full hour.  The idea is to let them communicate, devise, and build the structure on their own within a set timeframe. 

As an added incentive, you might give the winning team a prize of some sort.  It can be a simple treat or something more elaborate. 

This activity is a great way to reinforce dynamic collaboration amongst team members.  It also promotes communication, problem-solving, and effective leadership.

Your Own Ideas for Exciting Leadership Exercises

Using your own improvised ideas is often the best way to create leadership activities.  After all, nobody knows your circumstances, or your organization better than you do.  As long as you are willing to put in a little bit of effort, you can tailor leadership exercises to any specification or requirement.

Consider what leadership trait you are trying to reinforce and create an exercise that allows this to be fully explored.  Augmenting your leadership exercises with special conditions or protocols can make things interesting but try to keep it as simple as you can.

Remember, the goal is always to get people to participate in meaningful ways and to create lasting bonds.  This is how the most dynamic organizations in the world are built.

“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”

-Aristotle

Scheduling The Time Needed For Leadership Exercises

The pace of business in our world is a frantic one.  Finding the time to exercise our leadership capabilities in a simulated environment can be challenging. 

Always bear in mind that developing the existing skill sets within your organization is paramount to any successful enterprise.  To be successful, you must practice for success.  Go figure!

Finding the time needed for leadership exercises will take effort, but it is something you need to consider a necessity.  Whatever it takes, get people together -even if only for precious minutes- and make them practice for their own future successes.

Leadership Exercises – In Conclusion

We must continually practice leadership.  Teamwork, and the forging of dynamic professional relationships are only possible when effective leaders take charge.

These listed exercises are not only highly actionable, but they will also serve to help you take your team to that next level in their development. 

You can use these leadership exercises immediately to better your own organization, or to promote a healthy workplace culture. 

Moreover, leadership exercises are an ideal way to actively train and improve upon your organization’s capabilities.  Studies have repeatedly shown that continuous practice is essential to maximizing the effects of any training.  Our minds simply can’t retain important information for very long if we don’t practice what we preach. 

Every team and organization must start somewhere.  By practicing regularly, you can create a powerful dynamic and improve already existing skill sets.  Leadership exercises are much like drills.  They allow a simulated environment to take hold within a group as they explore different outcomes together. 

Essentially, it makes everyone more aware of how they should respond in different scenarios, while obtaining the most desirable results going forward.

By setting a precedent of exercising our best qualities, we can promote a healthy workplace that embraces both individualism and the collective interests of all stakeholders involved in the larger process. 

There is no question that our fast-paced world is often an isolating one.  Many who struggle are left to fend for themselves. 

Only by learning and growing together, can we break down barriers while building those powerful foundations needed for a business to thrive upon.  It just takes some creativity, dedication, and -importantly- time to achieve. 

Beyond any reasonable doubt -for an organization looking to improve itself- the right leadership exercise can make a world of difference.

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