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A Journey in Improvisational Leadership

Last month, I had the honor of speaking at the Walker Leadership Institute’s Langenberg Leadership Forum at Eden Theological Seminary. The Langenberg Leadership Forum is a program for business and organizational leaders to connect with and learn from speakers who share their experience in community leadership.

As I thought about what I could offer on the topic of “What’s Next in Leadership?,” I reflected on the past 2.5 years of the global pandemic. The unknowns, the pace of change, the mounting potential for disruptions and conflict, and the interconnectedness of our world—and how making predictions has become a seemingly futile exercise. Our visibility about the future is declining.

But when I think about the future, I do believe the challenges that lie ahead of us will likely be far more complicated than what we’ve experienced thus far. As leaders in our respective industries and organizations, how do we ready ourselves and our organizations to not only survive what’s ahead and prepare ourselves and build the capacity to thrive?

There seems to be a big gap between the kinds of complicated problems and challenges organizations and businesses are able and designed to solve versus today’s incredibly ambiguous and complex problems we need to be tackling. 

This reality, and my own personal journey in leadership, have affirmed my strong belief in the need for more creativity, innovation, and whole brain thinking in leadership. As Albert Einstein once said, “The world we have made, as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far, creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them.”

The skill sets needed to make sense of and thrive in the unexpected, contradictory, and ambiguous situations we are all facing, call us to lean on our ability to be mentally flexible. Whether we embrace it or not, leadership is indeed an improvisational art.

I’ve spent most of my career leading an arts organization. While I’m not technically trained in dance, theatre, or visual arts, I do think of myself as creative.

At COCA, we help people develop technical skills in the arts. But I believe our work is much broader and even more critical. We are in the human development business and art is our vehicle to achieve that.

As an observer of artists, I’ve always been fascinated with their ability to take risks, be vulnerable, and be relentless at developing their craft and improving. If you’ve ever trained in any art form, you know artists are extremely disciplined about their development. Artists take training and rehearsal seriously, putting in countless hours. How many of us would say we approach our own leadership development in such a thoughtful, dedicated way? Through the years, I’ve picked up many tools from the artist’s toolbox that have helped me navigate my own leadership journey.

Let’s look at the lessons and principles of improvisational theatre and how they are beneficial to leadership:

Improvisational theatre (or improv), is a form of live theatre in which the plot, characters, and dialogue are created spontaneously and collaboratively in the moment by the performers.

But that could also be considered the definition of life! It is unscripted narrative we are building daily in real time. I learned early on that the childhood script we create in our heads of what we think, what we hope, what we’ve been told will play out, rarely does.

Another principle of improv is that you must make choices.

In improv, this means you must choose your character/perspective you speak from, the setting, and the action/conflict. Sometimes you have a split second to make choices, and sometimes you may be playing the role before you even realize you’ve made choices. When you apply this in leadership (and in life), this is about direction, priorities, and sometimes it is choosing the best option from a series of bad choices.

There are always choices. Be intentional about your voice, your setting, the part you are willing to play, and the actions you decide to take.

Fundamental to improv is the concept of “Yes, and…”

Whatever has been established, you must agree with it. You accept the offer that has been given to you and find a way to build on it. It just is. You move forward. It is your responsibility to contribute and be open minded. Whatever the problem, be a part of the solution.

I often use the phrase: It is, what it is. It’s a very improv-oriented approach. We must first accept the situation, receive what has been given, and move forward with it in new directions. When we do, we are generative and create conditions for endless possibilities.

You must take risk and share your ideas in improv.

You must put yourself and your ideas out there. Taking risks is not usually celebrated. With risks come mistakes, failure, and learning. We need to find ways to nurture risk-taking.

In improv, there are no mistakes; rather missteps are gifts that take people to unexpected places. What if we could apply that sort of asset-based approach in the organizations in which we work? What if we thought of mistakes as opportunities to learn? Often mistakes produce insights that spark creative responses.

Improv also teaches us that your ensemble is everything.

Your cast matters. You are in it together. They begin and finish your thoughts. They make you better.

So true is leadership. Leadership is a collaborative effort. Relationships matter; building trust is critical. 

As leaders, we are called to make the best decisions we can with the information we have at the time. It’s imperfect, and we’re often forced to choose from a variety of bad options. Your team will get you through the tough conversations as you make decisions. So, choose your cast carefully. 

In Improv, change is inevitable and necessary to the narrative.

And with changing circumstances, you must play in the present and use the moment. You cannot speak from the past. As leaders, we must constantly react and respond to new information, evolving circumstances, and changing contexts. 

Change is a constant, and we need to be prepared to move. Whether you apply that literally or figuratively in your leadership, the lesson is to move, to shift. For me, getting out of my head and into my body has always been a way to see things from a new angle, perspective and unlock new possibilities.  

We learn improv by doing, experiencing. While you can be guided by clear vision, values, and a strategic plan, ultimately, what you do from moment to moment cannot be scripted or choreographed. The key is that amid the game, we must maintain the capacity for reflection—the ability to notice our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and capabilities. It is through this real-time learning and reflection, that you ultimately learn to make better choices in the face of changing dynamics. 

Improv is about authenticity; It is an exercise in self-discovery.

If you ask an improv theatre artist what the art form is about, they might say that it is a journey in learning to be your natural self. It closes the gap between thinking and doing. As vulnerable and risky as this sounds, authenticity is ultimately the safest place to be. When we are authentic as leaders, it creates safe space for others to share themselves, their ideas, and their perspectives. When we are inauthentic as leaders, it is like we are performing the role of a scripted character. As actors, and as leaders, we need to be believable. Leaders trying to play a role all day, every day will be exhausted and ineffective, and it will show! 

Everyone can improvise. Human beings by their nature are improvisers. That doesn’t mean it is simple or easy. In fact, I’ve been trying to get better at this my entire career! It is because much of what improv teaches us goes against everything life has taught us, so it takes tremendous persistence. Life hasn’t taught us to be spontaneous and say the first thing we think of, or to celebrate failure; to accept things versus deny them; or to depend on your team or community and to make each other look good versus make it a competition. 

As leaders we like knowing the answer, being good at what we do, and we tend to conform to those around us. We feel awkward and insecure when we are trying something new. Building our creative confidence can be challenging. I’ve been fortunate to be in a place that uses the tools and methods of artists, designers, dancers, actors, writers, and for personal growth and organizational development. 

Embracing improv has helped me discover a lot about myself. It’s forced me get out of my overthinking head and into my body, and my intuition. I’ve learned to be a more active listener, present to the moment at hand.

I think the biggest lesson from improv is learning to fully appreciate the value of collaboration, to know that truly great leaders also need to embrace being good followers. To me, the art of leadership is about being comfortable with this ebb and flow. As leaders we are just one actor on stage, and we all know that ultimately the story is much richer, more meaningful when we create something special with others.