It sounds like name dropping here, so forgive me, but I once studied improv with Paul Sills. Paul is the son of Viola Spolin, who wrote the best book ever on improv - "Improvisation for the Theatre." My time spent taking Paul's class in a little space next to Second City in Chicago changed my life for the better in hundreds of ways.
I became a much better actor. I took more risks. I stopped over-reacting. The work became a team effort instead of a test of egos. It was like magic.
As it turns out, improvisation is not just good for actors - it's great for everyone. We all must improvise sometimes. Problems may have process-based solutions much of the time, but sometimes the solution is just not easy to find. People may follow our leadership gladly much of the time but sometimes they need something different, something that's hard to define. As high performance leaders, we must improvise.
It's not just making things up. It's not going for the punchline or trying to be clever. Paul would sometimes say "stop playwriting" meaning -- stop trying to force the creativity. It must instead flow, and that comes from being real. High performance leaders are real. They show integrity. Just as a talented improv actor does NOT pretend to be someone else* a high performance leader does not "fake it until they make it." You are who you are, in harmony with your team, in alignment with your mission.
That's not just powerful, it's fun.
The basic rules of improv do apply to leadership:
- say yes / and, instead of either / or
- support your team instead of invalidating them
- there are no mistakes, only opportunities
Depending on what you read, there are dozens of other possible improv rules. Those three will take you far - in acting, and in leadership.
High performance leaders improvise. Here are a few ways you might want to improvise as a leader:
- discovering how to best motivate your team members
- creating new solutions to problems
- connecting on a human level to create deeper conversations
- making presentations that spark interest and influence people
How can you add improvisation to your leadership style this week?
* True, to some degree acting is pretending to be someone else. To complete BECOME someone else is dangerous for the art and dangerous for the artist. We still hold onto who we are, just as a leader holds onto who she is. It's beyond pretending, though. It is feeling, showing, and sharing real reactions to situations, not faking them.
P.S. For a deeper dive:
Alan Alda wrote a useful and highly entertaining book on using improv skills to communicate more effectively. "If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?" (My Adventures in the Art and Sciend of Relating and Communicating) shows how to take the basics of improv and dramatically improve your ability to communicate and (most importantly) connect with other people. High performance leaders will benefit from reading and applying this book.