Improv(ing) Leadership

For the past few months, my daughters have been taking acting classes from an accomplished actor at our local community theater. My wife & I don’t have dreams of becoming parents of the next Disney Channel or Nickelodeon star…we simply want them to learn to be more creative and expressive, and acting is a great vehicle to do so.

There are countless articles and leadership development programs that tout the merits of leadership through improvisation, so I don’t know if I’ll reveal any groundbreaking information here. However, I’ve intently watched as my kids learn about improvisational acting, and I can’t help but draw a correlation between improvisation and leadership, specifically situational leadership.

In their seminal book Management of Organizational Behavior, Paul Hersey, Ken Blanchard, and Dewey Johnson espoused the theory of situational leadership, noting that effective leaders adapt their leadership style based on the maturity of the people they lead. The author’s thesis was that if a leader wants to determine which style is most appropriate, he or she should also be proficient in diagnosing the commitment, competency, and performance of his or her subordinates.  As a result, the leader should prescribe solutions to the needs of his or her followers, and be flexible enough to partner with those subordinates to facilitate performance.

Essentially, leaders should be able to adept to dynamic situations and adjust their management style accordingly.

To me, this paradigm aligns closely with the 5 basic rules of improv that are generally accepted in the acting community:

  1. Don’t deny
  2. Don’t ask open-ended questions
  3. You don’t have to be funny
  4. You can look good if you make your partner look good
  5. Tell a story

So, how can you use improv to enhance your leadership tenure?

Don’t deny:

In improv, “denying” is when one actor negates the statement his or her partner just made (e.g. actor #1: “my name is John”; actor #2: “no it’s not…your name is Pete”). Leaders must learn to say “yes, and…” more than they say “no” – particularly since denial can affect employee engagement and performance. There are exceptions, however, which leads to rule #2…

Don’t ask open-ended questions:

This rule runs counter to my personal style. I like engaging in conversations with people that go beyond surface discussions, especially when I’m working with clients to diagnose organizational problems. Open-ended questions are vital in revealing information, and they help remove barriers that are created with simple “yes” and “no” replies. That said, there are times when leaders have to direct their followers down a specific path (explicit goals and objectives, clear deliverables, etc.), and open-ended inquiry is not appropriate. The situational leader knows the right time to employ a style that elicits a simple yes or no response.

You don’t have to be funny:

One of the biggest misnomers of charismatic leadership is that followers MUST have adulation for their leaders, and that humor is a great way to endear people to you. In reality, charismatic leaders are adept in conveying their allegiance and passion for their goals, objectives, causes, etc. – and their followers buy in to their passion and align themselves with the leaders vision. Being humorous is fine, but you’re even more effective when you’re being your authentic self. You don’t have to be “on stage” to endear others to the things that are important to you.

You can look good if you make your partner look good:

This rule is the embodiment of leadership 101: effective leaders speak to their followers  WIIFM’s (“what’s in it for me”). I always say that the true test of the effectiveness of any leader is how effective and proficient their followers are. When an exemplary leader creates an environment where their team thrives and performs well, the reflection on their successful leadership is clearly evident.

Tell a story:

No one wants to hear a long, drawn out story, especially when the story-teller is their leader. People do, however, want to be engaged…to feel as though their contributions are vital to the organization’s success. As an effective leader, you don’t have to tell a story to get your point across, but you do have to “paint a mental picture” so your followers can envision themselves as an integral factor in the success of their workplace.

Here’s the bottom line: the key to successful improvisation is the ability to “think on your feet”…quickly. Every effective leader should know how important it is to be able to do that consistently.


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