Yushau Sodiq
Yushau Sodiq 11 February 2015

Leadership Lessons from Improv

Improv is a performance art that has no script. There are many lessons it can teach you on how to to be a better leader.

About 3 years ago, my wife gave me a really great birthday gift. It was not as exorbitant as a new car or as lame as a tie. It was in-between and it was perfect. My wife got me an improv class at a local theater that we frequented on our date nights. The class was taught by ’improv’ actor who performed in Chicago (de-facto birthplace of improv comedy) and has performed and toured for over 18 years. Simply put, this guy was the real deal.

Three years later, eight more classes, dozens of performances and a couple of paid gigs later, the value of all of it has had a profound effect on my skills and I wanted to share the lessons I learned from my journey:

STFU and start listening
As an beginning improv actor, you are not an individual on stage, you typically perform games and 2-3 person scenes, so you are always a group. Therefore, the art of listening becomes crucial to everything you do on stage. Listening to your scene partners helps you justify whatever they say and allows you to contribute to the story you are telling as a group.

This applies to any leader who wants his team to embody the brand in all that they do. As you listen more, you pay attention to the intentions, demeanor and delivery of your scene partner. Listening does not only happen with the ear, it is a full body experience and you learn a lot about team members passions, desires and goals. Lastly, listening is about trust. Something that any stable work environments needs to properly accomplish the goals of the organization.

Life is not about you, it’s about your interactions
As a part of the office and cubicle nation, there tends to be a trend towards just going in, do your job and go home. Sadly, this causes folks to hate what they do, who they work for and typically ends with dissatisfied team members. One way to alleviate this is to regularly work team activities into the fabric of your work. This does not mean a mandatory team outing to Dave & Busters, Top Golf or some camp site singing ’Kumbaya’. I mean an actual effort to congregate with your team in outside work functions. On every team that I have been a part of, there is usually always someone who does something either on the weekends or in the evenings, this may include boche ball, dodgeball (these leagues are awesome), salsa dancing, singing, Obama impressions, or whatever.

As a team member, if that person has an event, you should be make a concerted effort to watch them in their element. There is nothing like watching a team member perform or do something that they enjoy and you can only sit back and say, ’I can’t believe you do that, that was awesome’. Sometimes, just being there is enough...Yes, it’s embarrassing to have work people come to an event of yours, but the truth is, if they already see it on facebook, they might as well get a peek of the real thing. You will be a closer team because of it.

Trust and let people do what they do best
In today’s over individualized society, we have a tendency to only trust ourselves with our own career’s and our own successes. A CMO once told me that we are responsible for our own choices, and ultimately our own success. And this concept is very valid and has a lot of truth to it. Yet, when you look at the success of entrepreneurs and most successful organizations, they will all tell you that they are nowhere without the team of people around you.

With improv, you must trust that the team that you’ve assembled will not only take care of themselves, but they will also take care of you as well. While on stage, there is a level of sensitivity that every improviser knows that if they do not trust the other individual, the scene simply will not succeed. Improv is always about the team. Even if there is one person that stands out in the performance, the key to their success is that their partner gave them enough to be successful.

One of the best things about improv is that there is a natural give and take when you are on stage. And if you have trust with your fellow actors, it makes it so easy to trust their judgement. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, once said that the Google Triumvant (1 CEO, 2 co-founders) arrangement "works because we have tremendous trust and respect for each other and we generally think alike." This did not take place overnight and Eric Schmidt believes in making less decisions and knowing when to let other people make those decisions without him. This is highlighted in the book ’How Google Works’, Leadership is not only a natural skill, but it can also be learned and mastered.

As you embark on your next team meeting or your next important decision involving your team, remember these tidbits. Use your ears, eyes, and gut as you pay attention to your teams needs. They will tell you exactly what they need from you, and you simply need to open up and trust.

If you want to avoid all of the negative connotations of the HIPPO, you should STFU, Listen, Engage and Trust that the team wants to be as successful as their fearless leader. Let me know if you’ve ever taken an improv class and any lessons it has taught you professionally or personally.

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