Loosely speaking, improv is a form of theatre where the players create a situation in front of an audience, in the hopes of generating laughs. Leadership, on the other hand, is the ability to take command of a situation, inspire trust and loyalty, and help individuals and groups achieve things they wouldn’t be able to do on their own.
To put it bluntly: one is silly and fun, and one is quite serious. What could they possibly have in common?
As you may already be able to guess: I’m going to argue that they have quite a lot in common! In fact, I would say that they use many of the exact same skills; they just just apply those skills differently.
This was the premise of my keynote presentation at the HUTAC Annual Conference, which I called “The Flipside of Good Leadership”. I wanted to show that some of the things we think may not have a place in ‘leadership’ are actually quite important. Not coincidentally, these attributes or approaches also happen to be things that are stressed in improv training.
Here are four elements of improvisation that – paradoxical though they may seem – can fruitfully be applied to leadership.
NO LEADER: In improv comedy there is no single ‘leader’, everyone (when it is their ‘turn’) must step up and perform. And usually a ‘turn’ isn’t something made explicit; rather it is something that is ‘felt’. So that responsibility, rather than being assigned, is shared amongst the whole group. This creates more investment and less of the “well, it wasn’t my job” type of attitude.
When an improv show is happening, all of the players take equal responsibility for both taking center stage when that is required of them, and also making room for other players to shine when that best serves the overall goal. It’s a fine balance, but well worth the effort, as it means every participant is able to bring out their best.
PLAY: When faced with a big problem, we often tense up, get stressed, and make bad decisions look at this site. And the more serious an issue is, the less likely we are to solicit input and engage our creative thinking. But oftentimes some element of creativity and playfulness is exactly what is required.
If an improviser hears a suggestion of ‘cheese’ and uses that to inspire a scene about a family portrait photographer, or a first date where the man keeps saying overly sweet and romantic things, the audience is surprised and delighted, but it’s just that the player has been training in a playful approach to ideas and concepts. It will pay dividends not just on stage but also in meetings and at home.
RISK: “A safe pair of hands” is a good thing to have; we want to be people who can be entrusted with responsibility, who are able to keep things running smoothly. But when we think about great innovators and inventors, people who inspire us and have produced remarkable things, they rarely – if ever – achieved fantastic results by toeing the line and maintaining the status quo. A little bit of risk, such as the risks that improv performers take as a part of their trainign and performances, helps those individuals become more comfortable with taking risks.
AWARENESS: We often imagine that good leadership is some nearly supernatural abililty that comes from inside the leader. But oftentimes great leadership comes from highly sensitive people who are tuned into the feelings and attributes of the group and are able to facilitate their achievements. This is sometimes referred to as “leading from behind“.
Leadership this way is often thought to be magnanimous, but it actually can come from a desire to get optimum results. Having complete awareness of opportunities and risks in the environment and strengths and weaknesses of your team allow a group to make great things happen, and pivot around easily avoidable pitfalls.
Viewed through this lens, accomplishment has very little to do with what it is the leader wants to accomplish and everything to do with the group as a whole, and the circumstances they find themselves in. This awareness and active listening is an instrumental part of improv. In fact, active listening is one of the first things I teach any new improviser.