Imagine that you have a goal to achieve with your team. You have to expect the unexpected, and make decisions from moment to moment. You have endless options but no clear rules about which ones are the best.
It’s funny how much leadership and improvisational comedy (improv) have in common.
When we hear the world "improv" we think of Saturday Night Live sketches and Wayne Brady’s hilarious songs on Whose Line is it Anyway? It's all about spontaneity, play, and embracing the unexpected. That’s why it’s so entertaining.
But actually doing improv? If you're like most people, you're probably thinking, “I’m not that funny” or “I hate public speaking” or “I’m too shy” or “I’m not that quick on my feet.”
To which we reply: those are all great reasons to do improv!
Improv is sometimes called “yoga for social skills.” Communication, creativity, and dealing with discomfort are all social muscles that we can build with practice. Business schools and corporations now recognize the power of improv and have started building it into their leadership training.
You learn improv like you would learn yoga or any other skill - by starting with the basics. Before you can float into Eight Angle Pose you must learn to stand tall like a mountain, and before you become a famous sketch comedian (or an amazing boss) you play Zip Zap Zop.
Here are just a few of the mental muscles you develop by practicing improv:
Working as a Team
Improv is always a team (or “ensemble”) activity. Each member’s contributions become part of the story. The mantra is “yes, and” - you take what somebody else has given you, build upon it, and then give it back so that they have another moment to shine.
True leadership works the same way. There’s a time and a place for “no”, but a good leader knows when to give others the spotlight, use their ideas, and nurture their success.
Listening to Understand
In order to create an improv scene that makes people feel good, you need to pay attention to what others are saying and what they're trying to achieve. This lets you draw inspiration from your ensemble and create something that you couldn’t have done alone. It also helps to protect personal boundaries. If you’re paying attention to another person's signals, you'll see when they're uncomfortable and you can change the tone or direction of the scene.
These are crucial skills during tough conversations. We often try to “win” arguments shooting down another person’s arguments and advancing our own (the “listening to reply” or “yes, but” approach). That approach puts up walls and prevents constructive discussion. When you listen to others with the goal of understanding their views and objectives, you get outside your bubble. When you transform “yes, but” into “yes, and” you create space for real solutions.
Getting Comfortable with Discomfort
We won't lie. The first time you play an improv game, you will feel silly. The first time you stand up with an improv partner to do an unscripted scene, you will be terrified. There are scenes that just don’t work, no matter how hard you make them funny. Even the pros have horrible, awkward moments. You just don’t see those ones on TV.
The good news: after one or two tries, you don’t feel silly or anxious anymore. You get used to those scenes that fail, and you bond (even laugh) with your ensemble as you work through them together. Moments after the scene ends, the awkward feeling is gone but the lessons remain.
Leadership is full of uncomfortable situations and screw-ups. When you learn to live with that discomfort, and to put it into perspective, you start making better decisions and helping the people around you do the same.
Here at Spice! HQ, we love improv. We start with games that activate your powers of openness, expressiveness and communication. Before you know it, you’re jumping out of your seat, doing things you never imagined and showing off a funny bone you didn't know you had. It works because when everybody is saying “yes, and” there's no room for the judgments that usually hold people back. We can't imagine any better tool for developing the confidence and skills of an effective leader, and having fun while you’re at it.
Spice! Leadership empowers tomorrow’s leaders through camps and workshops for everyday superheroes aged 10 to 110.