Leadership, we all know, is serious business. If you're steering the ship, you have a heavy responsibility for those onboard, so if you want to take on that role, you better be at your most sober and serious, right?

There are no doubt times that stone-faced focus on the job at hand is essential for executives, but if you're looking to move up to a top leadership position, taking that transition far too seriously might actually backfire, according to INSEAD professor Herminia Ibarra.

Rediscovering Your Inner Kid

In a recent article on how to act like a leader for INSEAD Knowledge she argues that learning the tough skills you'll need for a new leadership role is often best done by remembering how you learned other new skills early in life--by being a bit playful.

"Moving into a bigger leadership role usually involves a shift from having good ideas to selling them to diverse stakeholders," she writes, but these new skills can be challenging to learn as they involve revamping your sense of yourself, your abilities, and your approach to your work.

"As much as transitions require us to move way beyond our comfort zones, they can also trigger a strong countervailing impulse to protect our past identities. We easily retreat to old habits, especially those that have been rewarded in the past," she continues.

What's the way around this impulse to protect and conserve older ways of doing things that might not serve you well in your new role? Basically, allow yourself a bit of dress up and make believe, or the adult versions of these childhood games, at least. That way new approaches don't feel inauthentic--they might actually feel a bit fun.

"I recommend that people think of leadership development as 'playing with' rather than 'working on' themselves (which, let's face it, is not much fun). When we adopt a playful attitude, we're more open to a diverse, even divergent, set of possibilities. It's OK to be inconsistent from one day to the next. We're not being a fake. That's just how we figure out what's right for the new challenges we face. The trick is to work toward a future version of your authentic self by stretching way outside the boundaries of who we are today," Ibarra explains.

Of course, being playful doesn't imply taking your responsibilities lightly, not thinking things through, or generally slacking off in any way. But the suggestion that, when it comes to perfecting a new work demeanor, allowing yourself the flexibility and fun to test things out, try slightly outlandish ideas and backpedal when new approaches aren't working seems sensible, if a little counterintuitive.

Are you taking your new leadership role too seriously?