Communication Currents

Instructor's Corner #2: Twisted: Exploring Leadership with Human Knots

June 1, 2014
Instructional Communication

Are leaders born or made? We believe communication skills, such as leadership abilities, can be learned through experience. That is why we created an activity using a human knot to help students better understand how different leadership styles can either help or hurt a situation. By being virtually twisted into a knot with their classmates, students follow a leader’s ability to untangle them. What they don’t know is that one of their classmates, the designated leader, is performing one of three leadership styles: a democratic leader, an authoritarian leader, or a laissez-faire (hands-off) leader.

The democratic leader loves consensus and group opinions, and acts once group members have voted. This is the boss you might dream about having, one who listens, communicates well, and solicits feedback from the team. The authoritarian leader makes all team decisions, demands authority, and dismisses group members’ perspectives. This boss watches us like a hawk, breathes down our necks, dictates orders, micro-manages, and seeks power and control. The laissez-faire leader is extremely hands-off, lets the group make all decisions, sits on the sidelines and only assists if asked. This might be the boss we love to hate, or hate to love. This boss is relaxed and may appear to be doing “nothing,” but in reality s/he is placing great faith and trust in her/his workers. 

No leadership style is necessarily better than another because every situation requires different leadership skills. For example, in an emergency situation we need an authoritarian leader to step up and say, “You! Call 911!” If we polled the audience about the best possible course of action, or failed to become involved at all, someone in need might never get help in time. Each leadership style offers pros and cons, dependent upon the situation. 

To illustrate this point, as well as to better understand leadership styles, we offer the following activity steps:

     1.      Ask for three volunteers. 

     2.      Instruct volunteers to meet you in the hallway.

     3.      Ask the class to clear a large space in the classroom while you are meeting the volunteers in the hallway.

     4.      Provide the volunteers with a notecard indicating their leadership style and specific items to exaggerate such as: 

              a.       Democratic

                              i.      Share your leadership.

                             ii.      Delegate responsibility to others in the group.

                            iii.      Contribute when you think it is appropriate.

                            iv.      Vote and discuss which steps to take with the group.

                             v.      Participate not too much or too little.

               b.      Authoritarian

                              i.      Take control!

                             ii.      Participate constantly!

                             iii.      Make all decisions!

                             iv.      Tell people what to do!

                              v.      Do not let group members move or make their own decisions!

                c.       Laissez-faire

                              i.      Let members find their own way out of the knot.

                             ii.      Let group members make their own decisions. 

                            iii.      Participate minimally, if at all. 

                            iv.      Only supply information when asked.

                             v.      Do not evaluate or influence group members’ discussions and decisions.

     5.      Tell volunteers that each leader will have her/his turn, meaning that only one leader is in charge at a time. Tell leaders to participate in the activity when they are not performing their role. 

     6.      Once back in the room, have students huddle in a circle and form a human knot by holding hands with two different students. Students may not hold hands with someone standing next to     them. 

     7.      Tell students to follow the leader’s instructions, but do not reveal which leadership style is being portrayed.

     8.      Have the volunteers assume their leadership style’s role and untangle the knot.

     9.      Repeat these steps until each leadership style has been demonstrated.

Once you complete the activity, make sure you debrief with students by discussing: (a) pros and cons to each leadership style, (b) emotions experienced as group members, and (c) real-world impact of each style in the workforce. 

To help with debriefing, we suggest the following questions:

     1.      What did/did not surprise or upset you about this activity?

     2.      To what extent did you, as group members, get to share your perspective? What helped and hindered your ability to freely communicate?

     3.      With your future or current career goals in mind, what leadership style do you think will work best and worst? Why?

     4.      Provide examples of when you think each leadership style might work best. When might leadership styles need to adapt/change? 

     5.      How might you overcome challenges of working with people (i.e., supervisors and co-workers) who might have different leadership styles than you?

In our experiences, students not only enjoyed this activity, but said it helped them to better understand leadership style differences. Some students were surprised by which strategy they found to be the most effective, as well as how the atmosphere of the room changed with each leader. By providing students with opportunities to experience communication and leadership in a hands-on way, we, as instructors, offer future leaders, supervisors, and employees the opportunity to critically assess their situation and determine which type of leadership might be the most appropriate.

About the author (s)

Nathaniel Simmons

Western Governors University

Communication Faculty

Nathaniel Simmons

Katie Striley

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Assistant Professor