Team Building Exercises – Leadership

Developing Leaders for the Future

Team Building Exercises – Leadership - Developing Leaders for the Future

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Lead your team from the front.

What do a marshmallow, dry spaghetti, some string, and a yard of tape have to do with team building and leadership? Nothing, you might think, until you listen to a TED talk by Tom Wujec, a designer who developed the Marshmallow Challenge team building exercise.

This, and other team building activities, may seem silly at first blush, and often people put them down as nothing but a pointless bit of fun. However, when they are correctly thought through and facilitated, they can help your team build important leadership skills, and allow you to identify future leaders.

In this article, we'll explore how to run three team building exercises that focus specifically on developing people's leadership skills.

The Purpose of Leadership Team Building Exercises

Leaders need to set direction, build an inspiring vision of the future, and develop their team members' potential. They must have strong communication, delegation and decision-making skills, as well as the ability to adopt a flexible style of leadership.

Team building exercises can help organizations identify people with the potential to be future leaders. Likewise, they give team members the chance to learn leadership skills, and use them in their current roles.

Team Building Leadership Exercises

The following three exercises explore a variety of leadership styles and skills.

1: The Artificial Snow Exercise

This draws on the leadership styles in the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership® Theory: telling, selling, participating, and delegating. The model suggests that leaders should switch between these styles, depending on their work environment.


Download and print our worksheet to help with these exercises.


Participants in this activity can practice different leadership styles and observe the advantages and disadvantages of each one.

What You'll Need

  • Four to six people in each group.
  • A large, private room.
  • Paper.
  • Two pairs of scissors per group.
  • Glue.
  • Tape.
  • Other craft supplies, such as glitter (optional).
  • A leadership styles worksheet for each group leader.


Flexible, but normally around one hour.


  1. Divide participants into teams.
  2. Tell everyone that they are now working for their local public works department. The department director has asked each team to produce artificial snow, because she thinks that the lack of real snow will spoil the upcoming Winter Festival – the community's biggest annual event.
  3. Ask each group to appoint a leader. Take the leaders aside and give each one a style description, as specified on the worksheet. They must then return to their groups and begin acting in their assigned style. They should tell their teams that they've adopted a different leadership style, but should not reveal what it is.
  4. Pass out the scissors and paper to the teams. Tell them that they must each design a snowflake and give them 10 minutes to plan and create a prototype. Members must reach a consensus on the design.
  5. After 10 minutes, ask each team to share its snowflake design with the group.
  6. Now, explain that each team has 10 minutes to produce as many snowflakes as possible. These must be identical to the prototypes.
  7. Once the time is up, inspect each team's product for consistency, compared with the original design. The "winning" team is the one with the most snowflakes that match its prototype.

Advice for the Facilitator

One common weakness in leaders, especially new ones, is a tendency to stick with their favored leadership style rather than match it to the occasion. Good leaders understand that flexibility is crucial to meeting the needs of those they lead, and is a key element of the Hersey-Blanchard model.

After the exercise, ask the teams to describe their leaders' styles, and assess their strengths and weaknesses based on the activity. Get them to score how effective the leaders were in increasing their motivation and productivity on a scale of one to 10. Then, reveal each leader's style, and encourage participants to discuss which worked best, which were less effective, and why.

Discuss the Hersey-Blanchard model with your group, and encourage people to think about the leadership styles they would personally like to develop. You might want them to do a leadership skills self-assessment or a Leadership Motivation Assessment, to enrich the discussion.

You may also want to discuss other leadership styles, such as transformational leadership, to provide additional insight into some of the advantages and disadvantages of different approaches.

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Exercise 2: The Management vs Leadership Exercise*

The aim of this activity is for participants to recognize that every leader can be a manager, but not every manager is a leader. This exercise is particularly appropriate for new and emerging leaders, to help them understand the difference.


Use this exercise to encourage participants to discuss what makes a good manager and leader. They must then identify their own strengths, and explore how they can improve.

What You'll Need

  • Manager vs Leader worksheet.
  • A deck of competency flash cards for each participant (as described in the worksheet).
  • Blank flash cards.
  • A large, private room.
  • Markers.
  • A flip chart for each pair of participants.
  • Star stickers.
  • Dot stickers.
  • Paper.
  • Pens or pencils.


Flexible, but generally about one hour.


  1. Put participants into pairs.
  2. Give each pair a stack of competency flash cards, and a small number of blank ones. Ask them to organize their cards into two piles: one for leadership competencies and the other for managerial ones. They can add new competencies on the blank cards, if they want to, or eliminate any that they don't think fit into either category.
  3. After the teams have finished, bring the group back together to discuss the different answers. Ask one person from each pair to write up the results on a flip chart, so that everyone can see them.
  4. Next, pass out the sticker sheets of stars and dots. Ask the pairs to place stars next to the competencies they think they're good at, and put dots next to no more than five areas that they can improve in.

Advice for the Facilitator

People often use the terms "management" and "leadership" interchangeably, but each has its distinct skill sets. As author Warren G. Bennis said, "Managers do things right. Leaders do the right things."

This exercise encourages participants (particularly those new to leadership roles) to think about whether they are demonstrating management or leadership skills. Discuss the leadership competencies, give people time to think about their strengths and weaknesses, and help them identify how they can improve.

If the group comprises new leaders, ask them to share some of the challenges they have faced as they moved into their roles, and to think about the kinds of obstacles they might encounter the future. You might encourage them to use a Personal SWOT Analysis after the exercise to explore these ideas further.

Exercise 3: The Plane Crash Survival Scenario*

In this exercise, teams are asked to imagine that they are stranded following a plane crash, and to come to a consensus about who will survive from the group.


This activity is designed to test participants' facilitation, conflict resolution and communication skills. Individuals must work together as a team to make sure that everyone agrees on the outcome.

What You'll Need

  • A large, private room.
  • A blank exercise worksheet and a copy of the list of survivors for each participant.


Around one hour.


  1. Explain the scenario: you and your group have survived a plane crash. The plane has crash-landed in water, at least one day away from the nearest island. Its electronic systems are damaged, so the pilot cannot send a mayday message. The one life raft that is intact can hold four people, and there are nine survivors. If the team does not reach consensus about who will go onto the raft, the plane will sink and all will die.
  2. Hand out the list of survivors and a blank worksheet to each participant. They should spend 15 minutes filling them in with their own personal rankings, from 0 to 10, based on the available information. They should work individually and not share their thoughts with anyone else
  3. After people have completed their rankings, put them into teams, and instruct them to agree on who survives. Give them approximately 30 minutes to reach a consensus.
  4. Once the time is up, collect each team's rankings, and share the results with the whole group. Individuals must then score themselves according to how close their own selections were to the group's decision. This indicates their influence over the group.

Advice for the Facilitator

Strong leaders are decisive, but they are still able to foster an inclusive, constructive environment. They may have to make unilateral decisions, particularly in crisis situations. However, where possible, they consult with their team members to reach consensus, as authoritarian decision making in the wrong situation can cause resentment and resistance, and undermine a group's ability to meet its objectives. Therefore, the focus of your debrief should be on exploring each group's decision-making and leadership behaviors.

Part of being a good leader is being able to demonstrate strong negotiation and persuasion skills. Ask your teams whether there were occasions during the exercise when anyone successfully persuaded others to an alternative way of thinking. Was his or her score closest to the group score? How did he do this? What language did he use? Did he actively listen to others' opinions, before putting his own ideas across?

Conflict happens when people have different viewpoints, experiences, skills, and opinions. If it's not controlled, the group discussion could lead to an unproductive, emotionally charged free-for-all. Good leaders facilitate discussions, set ground rules, and make sure that people remain focused. They also use conflict-resolution skills to maintain a healthy debate and to avoid negative conflict. Encourage participants to reflect on their discussions. Were they all able to contribute? Did anyone assume the facilitator's role? Was she successful and – if so – why?

Ask your teams to discuss whether any members stood out as leaders. For example, did anyone try to establish collective goals up front, or define team members' roles and responsibilities based on their experience and skills? What did these people do to instill confidence in their teams, which resulted in others gravitating towards them? Was it their confidence, creativity or communication skills that set them apart?

Key Points

Team building exercises can be useful in helping organizations to identify and develop potential future leaders, and give team members a chance to learn, refine or practice their leadership skills.

Use these three exercises to test and observe your team members' persuasion, negotiation and communication skills. They will allow you to identify areas for improvement as well as potential.


See our other team building articles designed specifically to help improve your people's communication, creative thinking and problem solving and decision-making skills.

Apply This to Your Life

During your next team meeting, consider doing one of these leadership exercises. Even if your team members aren't currently on a leadership trajectory, they can still benefit from learning communication, negotiation and persuasion skills. And, as a bonus, you may recognize someone with untapped leadership potential.

* Original source unknown. Please let us know if you know who developed this.

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