What can improv teach us about leadership?

Tell a story as a group one word at a time. Mirror everything your partner does in such a way that nobody knows who is leading and who is following. Spell out a letter in the alphabet using you and your partner’s bodies. These aren’t dares I received in the third grade, rather they’re games I played with a group of second year students in our weekly improvisation class. I took improv as part of my Leadership Fellows curriculum that Booth offers for second year students. But what did playing these silly games teach me about leadership?

1.Failure should be celebrated

One of the first things our improv coach taught us during our workshops was a cheer to do when we failed. That is, anytime someone got stuck during a game or failed to keep the game going, we would all erupt into a cheer. While in class this was a great way to encourage someone for trying and to get them to try again, what this also did is re-frame our notion of failure. While failure is scary, it is also a signal that we tried something and made progress towards what we set out to do. And while there is oftentimes only one way to be right, there are many different ways to fail. Being comfortable with exploring those paths can often lead to a better outcome and a stronger sense of direction.

2. When you make others look good, you look good

Most improv games are partner or group based. As the point of the exercise is to be spontaneous and improvise, this means trusting your group members and having to play off what others have done before you. At times this can be frustrating, such as when you are telling a story that ends up entirely different from the one you had in mind. However, by using the words “yes, and” to build on your teammates suggestions rather than deviating from them, you not only make them look good but also show them that you trust their actions. When you place your faith in others and work to elevate them, the group as a whole works in sync and comes up with a better end result.

3. The best moments come from taking chances

When I first started improv, I would have a word or action in mind that I could contribute once it became my turn. However, the faster the games got and the more they required me to act before having a chance to think, the more I would need to literally say the first thing that came into my head. The more I did this, the more I realized that my initial instinct was not all that bad. In fact, at times it was even better than what I would have come up with had I thought more considering it was unexpected and surprising. I noticed that this was not only true for me but for the group as a whole. Some of the best stories and scenes came from people not second guessing themselves and trusting their instincts.

4. Communication takes a lot more than words

While some of the exercises we did showcased how carrying yourself with confidence can make you feel confident, others highlighted the power of eye-contact and non-verbal cues that we provide when we interact with others. I was surprised to find that my partners were gathering a lot of information about me without me even saying a word. This taught me a lot about communication and also miscommunication as I considered how people perceived me, not only based on what I was saying but also on things like my tone of voice and body language.

While I may have learnt the above lessons by playing some funny, low-stakes games, what I was really doing was building the ability to utilize these lessons in all areas of my life. Whether it’s using “yes, and” to encourage a group member to share ideas or feeling more confident raising my hand in class knowing that I could be wrong, learning improv has given me a framework with which to become a better listener, take more chances, shed my fear of failure, and work towards becoming a better leader.

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