Improvisational Leadership: Use Improv to Avoid Leadership Pitfalls

Guest post from Bob Kulhan:
Most of us aspire to be great leaders—passionate, inspiring, thoughtful and productive. But we all know people in the business world who do a terrible job in leadership positions: awful bosses, disengaged department heads, ineffective team managers, and otherwise bad bigwigs in nice offices who make the work environment an unpleasant one.

So if we all have the potential to be great leaders, where do some go wrong? Perhaps some leaders have developed bad habits; some lack an understanding of what it takes to be a good leader; and some feel they’re leading well simply because they’re focused on their intention to lead, not the results of their leadership. I specialize in bringing improvisational skills to the workplace, and one of the key elements of improvisational thinking is the ‘self-audit’—the ability to be aware in real time of how you’re doing your job and how your actions and leadership style are impacting those around you.   

A regular self-audit can keep you from slipping into one or more of the following leadership categories. If you find that some of your language, actions or habits are on this list, don’t worry—some simple improvisational techniques can help you fix them.

YES, BUT(’ers)
Yes, but(’ers) miss a key truth: how you frame language can make an enormous difference in sharing ideas, brainstorming, relationship building, and creating culture and influence. If people know one thing about improvisational thinking, it’s the concept of “Yes, and…” in which you invite open communication by responding directly to and striving to build upon the other person’s ideas. In contrast, “Yes, but…’ devalues, undermines, redirects, and (to the person hearing it) even negates everything that came before it.

IMPROV CORRECTIVE: Be mindful of your team and your role by specifically using “Yes, and…”. Make it clear that you respect what team members have to say and value their input. A great leader creates an atmosphere in which all members can flourish, and using the “Yes, and…” improv technique can help you create a culture of acceptance.

PARTY POOPERS
Some leaders assume that every party needs a pooper, and that a leader should point out flaws in others’ work—or say ‘No’ to others’ ideas. Their guiding principle seems to be negativism, and if something does turn out right, they feel compelled to point out that it could have been done better. Few things demotivate and demoralize a team faster.

IMPROV CORRECTIVE: Understand the difference between Divergent thinking (generating as many ideas as you can) and Convergent thinking (winnowing them down to one or two killer ideas). During divergent thinking, take off the “critical thinking” hat so you and your team can fully explore the possibility and potential of ideas before shooting them down. Then reapply the critical thinking skills in a separate convergent thinking phase, as you drive toward a productive outcome.

DR. KNOW-IT-ALLs
For these leaders, there has never been a good idea that couldn’t be dismissed in favor of their ‘better’ idea. These people judge the decisions of others without collaborating or contributing to the team in any meaningful way. They are much more interested in highlighting their own achievements, accolades, status and rank.        

IMPROV CORRECTIVE: Set the ego aside. Make sure that your subordinates and colleagues perceive your own goal as a leader to be the achievement of positive team results, not personal gain. If you’ve created a strong, improvisational team and a ‘Yes and’ environment, everyone will help each other succeed; team success is personal success. A good leader will make a good team look great, and a great team will make a good leader look amazing.

THE ZOMBIES
This approach to leadership is thoughtless, passionless, and lacking in energy. These leaders say they prize creativity, innovation and change but demand that the same old things be done in the same old way they’ve always be done. They talk a lot about ‘motivation’ without ever doing anything to motivate.           

IMPROV CORRECTIVE: Constantly take action. Make initiations and declarations. A leader needs to keep the energy of a team focused and driven. Change is a constant. You can lead change, follow change, or get dragged along behind it. Which do you prefer?

PROFESSOR PERFECT
This leader may be well-liked and has gotten successful results in the past but has fallen into the trap of demanding 100% perfection 100% of the time. This leadership dynamic is based in micromanagement, rooted in a fear of failure.          

IMPROV CORRECTIVE: Go ahead, be vulnerable and open to strategic failure. Improv is by nature about failure and evolution. An improvisational leader should experiment and innovate when possible and constantly seek out potential ways to improve performance. Create periods of time in which it’s okay to take chances and fail.  Avoid analysis paralysis; remember that only approximately 10% of decisions have to be 100% correct—the remaining 90% of decisions just need to be made, and there’s plenty of room to improvise, adapt and succeed. Avoid micromanaging by using improv techniques to create a team culture based in open communication and trust.

LINO
A Leader in Name Only, these people provide no guidance or support and barely show any leadership presence. Though not present for the day-to-day grind, they take all the credit for success and no responsibility (or accountability) for struggles, challenges or failures.  

IMPROV CORRECTIVE:  Lead by example, not with empty declarations. That means being available when guidance is needed and aware that struggles could be great opportunities for mentorship and team growth.Moreover, own the failures. This is a simple matter of integrity and accountability. The buck does indeed stop with you. A great leader credits the team when there is a success, and shoulders the responsibility when there is a failure. Any team’s chances of achieving desired results increase when a leader allows team members to be invested in success, appreciated when they achieve it, and free of a fear of failure when they don’t.

Great leaders (or bad ones) don’t emerge through just a few decisions or actions. Leadership traits—good and bad—develop over time, and the most enlightened leaders make personal leadership development part of their overall strategy for success. The more honest you are about how you are truly perceived as a leader, the better equipped you’ll be to avoid leadership pitfalls and influence your team in a positive way.   

About the Author:

Bob Kulhan is the author of GETTING TO “YES, AND”: The Art of Business Improv (Stanford University Press; January 24, 2017). He is President, CEO, and Founder of Business Improv, an innovative consultancy that specializes in experiential learning and serves an international roster of blue-chip firms. He is also an Adjunct Professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School. A performer with over 20 years of stage credits, he has trained with a long list of legendary talents, including Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. An actor and former core faculty member in Chicago’s famed Second City and a member of the resident company at the iO Theater, Kulhan is a co-founder of the critically acclaimed Baby Wants Candy improv troupe. His work has been featured by such outlets as Big Think, CNN, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, the Financial Times, NPR, Slate, and the Wall Street Journal.

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