ReadyToManage Webstore

Leadership and Management

Leadership Exercises

Leadership Exercises

Being an effective leader always carries with it a need to work collaboratively. To do this well, leaders need to be able to identify not on their own personal strengths and development needs but the strengths and development needs of each member of their respective group. Although this can be done as a conceptual assessment exercise, this is often only a theoretical appraisal of what an individual is capable of doing. For this reason, targeted and structured leadership exercises can provide a much better and more practical way to make an assessment of individuals and to determine their real potential to lead (in a better way and in different or bigger teams perhaps) in the future.

So, what are Leadership Exercises?

“Leadership exercises” is a catch-all term for those designed events that are often also called “experiential learning activities”. Three main examples include:

  1. Case Studies (such as having a small group review a situation and then discuss how they would recommend taking action or solving the problems presented in the case study).
  2. Group Activities/Tasks (such as having a team work together on a practical project, issue or business challenge for 15 -30 minutes, for instance).
  3. Games and Simulations (such as building something, or crossing a river as a team or having one team complete against another in a particular game, or simulation).

In all of the above categories, a practical exercise (as long as it is well set-up) is a way of providing participants with a fun experience from which they can learn more about themselves and their interaction with their working world. To do this, each exercise must be designed so as to provide the leader with a safe environment to both observe their own behavior and the actions of others and to participate themselves. Such an exercise should then have the power to concentrate real life issues into a compact activity.

Many of the best leadership exercises are designed to be powerful metaphors. Like stories, any one leadership development exercise can mean different things to different people. Consequently, the task of the exercise facilitator is to ensure that all participants understand the core message(s) of the particular activity and apply that message to workplace problems and issues as the facilitator encourages people to form their own conclusions. In other words, the purpose of each exercise is to empower participants to see workplace challenges differently and, as a result, positively change some element of their behavior when they are back in their real job world. An example is “Who Moved My Cheese” in which cartoon mice are used to discuss workplace change.

The key to exercise facilitation success

Having designed or selected your activity, the key to successful leadership exercise facilitation is to watch what happens very carefully and always seek to debrief the exercise according to what actually happens, not what you thought would happen. Participants generally dislike being told what they should have done or should have experienced. In this sense any exercises you may run are very different from the normal “talk and chalk” or lecture style learning approach that leaders may have had or still get in the classroom. Instead, this form of learning focuses on people taking action and actually doing things (albeit in a simulated fashion) and then asking lots of questions about the experience after the event so that we get as many “light-bulb” moments as possible.

Facilitators trying to control any exercise too tightly can jeopardize productive outcomes; facilitators should therefore relax, allow the exercise to work for itself, let participants have fun while they are involved in the exercise, and ultimately become the exercise “tour guide” not the activity “controller”.

The Power of Experiential Learning

Recent adult learning research statistics suggest that we learn about 10% of what we read (meaning it really sticks and is applied in the workplace), 15% of what we hear but 75% of what we experience for ourselves. This goes much further than just being a result of appealing to all learning preferences. Leadership exercises are then potentially very powerful experience anchors. This means that any participant is much more likely to recall the experience of an exercise when confronted with the issue they were learning about than they are to remember text or visual references. In turn this means they are much more likely to put the learning into practice.

Debriefing the Exercise is the key

Debriefing is the key to the learning experience. Many participants will not see the effect of an action they take in an exercise until you draw it out from them. Still fewer participants will immediately draw the link between their behavior in the exercise and what they do in the workplace. If you are not experienced at debriefing these kinds of exercises, consider these simple guidelines:

Debriefing Guidelines

  • Get participants to discuss in their teams, or in small groups, what happened in the exercise, what they learned and how the learning applies in the workplace.
  • When debriefing all participants together, draw out their experiences by asking open-ended questions.
  • Never tell participants what they experienced – you cannot know what happened inside someone else’s head.
  • Get participants to tell you what they learned.
  • Guide them to tell you the relevance of what they learned to the workplace.


A good leadership exercise, and experiential learning in general, is simply learning by doing. It is the way we naturally learn to walk, talk and ride a bike. Being in action stimulates all the key learning senses, not just the mind, and provides an active experience of the learning. Exercises are often metaphors for what happens in the real world, while providing a safe environment to experiment and practice new skill(s) and maximize the learning. Such exercises are in short critical for leadership development success.

Related Resources

Share this article.

About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

View all posts by Dr. Jon Warner →

Related Posts

Shop the ReadyToManage Webstore for 100's of downloadable coaching, training and development resources!
About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

Newsletter Subscribe

ReadyToManage Webstore Close-Out Sale


ReadyToManage is your one-stop shop for world class employee and personal development resources.  Our mission is to assist individuals and companies in developing management, leadership, and business skills in themselves and their employees through effective and affordable development materials and courses.

Newsletter Subscribe

Join Now!

Search Topics