Becoming the Leader You’d Like to Follow

3 Results of Using Applied Improv as a Leadership Practice

Becoming an effective leader is a challenging process, even in the best of times. Trying to map a success route from the myriad overlapping or contradictory leadership theories is like being on a journey where your GPS changes routes every few miles.

Instead of looking outward for the holy grail of effective leadership, look inward. Seek to understand what attributes you’d look for in a leader that you would willingly follow and then develop those qualities. “Applied Improv,” incorporating Improv theater principles into your leadership persona, is an effective way to become that leader that others want to follow because the application of the skills that make Improv theater folks  successful are essentially leadership skills. Here’s how 3 leadership qualities are enhanced through Applied Improv: Earned Status, Approach-ability and Self-Awareness.

Early in my leadership programs, l invite a volunteer to come up and partner with me in demonstrating an Improv game. I’ve set the stage by assuring the participants that only volunteers will be called on. No one will be forced, tricked or shamed into volunteering. I’ve also made it clear that the activity is not timed so no time pressure, it’s very simple to play, it’s impossible to fail and the volunteer and I are to be a team so we will work together.

Generally, there are few takers. Most of the audience waits for someone else to raise their hand and step up. Eventually, someone does volunteer and ask those who hadn’t volunteered to share what their thinking was. What kept their hands from going up? The reasons are varied. Among the most common answers are: “I don’t want to look foolish,” I don’t know what the game is about,” “I don’t like to be first”, “I’m tired” and “I was taught never to volunteer.” Very reasonable responses!

Then, I ask the people sitting in the audience how they feel now that someone had volunteered. Most of the comments are about how relieved they are, how relaxed they feel, and how grateful they were to the volunteer for stepping up. In other words, the person who stepped up had the power, through his or her action, to transform the emotional climate for the whole group. The volunteer thereby gains a very high status in the group. A status gained, not necessarily by a conscious effort to be liked, but by a desire to volunteer to participate, for whatever personal reason.

Improv Theater Principle to Note: Step into the unknown with a confidence in self, a comfort with uncertainty and a trust in the process that defines the activity. Know that many things are possible; not everything will work.

Applied Improv Impact on Leadership:  Show up and be present when there is insecurity. The status of a leader is assessed not so much by what he/she does, as how what she/he does impacts followers’ emotions.

The Improv theory mostly widely known in the non-theatrical world is “Yes, and.” The two words encapsulate the two-stage fundamental practice of Improv. First, accept what you are given without question, hesitation or judgment. That is the “Yes.”  The “And” means you build on what you accepted and move it along. This stripped down process is what makes Improv seem so fast and creative. It’s not that the performers are thinking fast and being funny. It’s that they act quickly and the humor arises from the results of the actions.

Without the options to judge, adjust, rearrange or question what they are given, all they need do is contribute their piece of the process and let go of anything else. It may seem like magic to the audience but to the magician, it’s not magic.

For leaders, “Yes, and” is a powerful and productive alternative to the more common “Yes, but.” In a dialogue, especially one that is contentious or otherwise emotionally- driven, “Yes, but” is a zero sum game. One person is right, others are wrong.
“Yes, and” allows you to understand and demonstrate the difference between acceptance of another’s point of view and agreement with that perspective. You may not see eye to eye with that other person; you may have a serious problem with them personally. Yet, as a leader, you need to know what others are thinking and have them tell their truth to you. Disagreement is possible using Yes, and”. There is a subtle, yet powerful emotional difference between, “yes, you think this way but I think that way” and “yes, you think this way and I think that way.” The second option keeps the door open for further exploration of where the differences originate.

A simple way to incorporate the  “yes, and” skill into daily communication is to  1)listen to what is said, 2)indicate acceptance by using the word “yes,” or a similar signal that you heard, 3) paraphrase what the other person said so they know you heard them, and 4) add whatever is true for you about the conversation.

Improv Theater Principle to Note: Deal with things as they are, rather than as how you’d like them to be. Separate “acceptance” from “agreement.” Resist the urge in the moment to assess the value or applicability of the offer.

Applied Improv Impact on Leadership:   You are approachable by all because they know they will be heard, even if you do not agree with them. You can disagree without becoming disagreeable or off-putting.

During a recap of a 6-person team activity, I asked the members for an assessment of their performance during the process. A woman replied, “I wasn’t a very good teammate because I took too long to come up with a suggestion when it came to be my turn.” I reminded her that there was no time limit in the game. Her response was, “I heard you but I didn’t believe you. Nothing in my life has no time pressure to it.” Then I heard her gasp and she said, “Oh my goodness! Now I understand why my direct reports get so nervous when I enter the room.”

She was able to see that her behavior in the Improv game mirrored her conduct in her life. She became aware that she carried a sense of urgency with her, even when it was not called for or helpful. She understood that the way she played the game was the way she was in real-life situations with similar emotional content.

When you watch yourself play in a pressure- filled situation, whether in an Improv setting or elsewhere, you see the “real you.” The reflection you see is the same person others see and encounter when you enter their world. Observing which behaviors, instincts and attitudes serve you and which don’t, is a big step toward self-awareness. Being self-aware allows you to work on accentuating the positive traits and minimizing the negative ones.

Improv Theater Principle to Note: When it’s your turn to contribute, you have absolute control over what you say or do.

Applied Improv Impact on Leadership: Becoming a compassionate observer of your “play” habits and any subsequent behavior adjustments changes your relationships. You become more transparent because of your greater acceptance of your own self and your willingness to model changing behavior.

Game to Play:
“What Are You Doing?”
Objective:  To quickly respond to verbal cues without allowing physical cues to distract. Player 2 must differentiate what Player 1 is saying from what they are doing.
# Players:  Any number in duos
Time Needed:  3-10 minutes
Process/ Directions: Player 1 begins by miming a physical activity while Player 2 observes the behavior.  After a few seconds of observation, Player 2  asks Player 1, “What are you doing?” Player 1 answers with anything that is NOT what they are actually miming.For example, Player 1 mimes brushing their teeth. Player 2 asks, “What are you doing?” Player 1 answers, “Reading a book.” Player 2 immediately mimes book-reading by holding up their hands as if they were holding a book or perhaps mimes turning pages. Player 1 asks, “what are you doing?” Player 2 answers anything but “reading a book.” Player 1 must then mime what Player 2 said.

Round continues until either player mimes what was done rather than what was said; takes too long to respond; repeats an action that has already been offered or any other restrictions group decides on.

Hint: No need to think of a “best answer” when asked “what are you doing.” The fun is in watching players recreate the actions to be mimed, especially when they are challenging.

Variations:  As a whole group activity, make it an elimination game so anyone who repeats, stumbles, or pauses too long is out, and another player takes his/her place.

Can Be Done in an Online Meeting? Yes. Demo with a volunteer to entire group. Use breakouts to break into duos.