Can Improv Teach You to be a Better Leader? Yes and.....
Updated: Jun 22
It was a happy accident that the pandemic gave me the opportunity to take an online improv class. This has been on my bucket list for years and once everything went online, as scary as it was, there were no more excuses! Another happy accident is that I learned there are a few key skills that good improv players can teach people who want to become better leaders.
As a reminder, improvisational theatre is when the actors don’t have a script, they make it up on the spot based on the situation and character that is assigned in the moment.
It is a lesson is being present, active listening, and keeping the ball moving toward the goal post.
These skills are directly applicable to becoming a better leader.
‘Yes And….’ is one of the first techniques you learn in an improv environment. What that means is when an actor says something in the scene, you must agree with it and use whatever they said as a building block for the story you are spontaneously creating in that very moment. Agreeing with what they introduce into the scene ALWAYS propels the story forward versus stopping it dead in its tracks, which is what would happen if you said ‘No, but….’
‘Yes and…’ thinking doesn’t come naturally, so taking improv classes can help you build your brain’s capacity to bring this into a business context. Authors Kelly Lewis and Brian Emerson, in their book ‘Navigating Polarities: Using Both/And Thinking to Lead Transformation’ refer to ‘yes and’ thinking as ‘both and’ thinking – it’s the same concept.
As a leader, you must keep forward momentum and motivate the team to execute the strategy you, and perhaps they, have defined. A ‘Both/and…’ attitude creates space for both parties to be at different ends of spectrum but still get where they need to go together. This is necessary when you must navigate polarities (a situation in which two interdependent and seemingly contradictory states must be maintained for success over time), which often happens in a business context. These polarities are what generates the absurdity and humor in an improvisational context.
If you are stuck in your head, whether in business, improv, or life in general, you are not present in the moment. This means you are in danger of completely missing what is happening right in front of you, or, if you don’t miss it, you are guaranteed to react to it more slowly. A lot of business leaders have so much on their mind that they forget to stop, breathe, and see what’s going on right in front of them. Similarly, in an improv scene, if you are thinking to hard about how you look or how funny you are, you will miss what is being said right in front of you and miss the opportunity to generate an authentic experience for the audience.
Active listening is related to being present but an additional skill. You must be present to be an active listener, but this type of listening is a deeper processing of the information gathered when you are truly present. When you listen actively, you process what the person is saying, what they are also not saying, and you don’t let your own opinions or biases filter how you receive the information. You co-create in the moment the conversation taking place, rather than controlling the direction you want the conversation to go. During improv, this is where authentically hilarious comedy comes from and in a business context, this where true innovation, connectedness, and results blossom.