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Leadership Lessons From Improvisational Comedy

Imagine yourself as a student sitting in a classroom with your kindergarten friends. I am your teacher and I’ve just asked everyone in your class who can paint a picture to raise their hands. Not surprisingly, every child’s hand eagerly shoots into the air; including yours.

Fast forward to the present. You are a business leader who has signed up for a training session focused on learning how to bring creativity and innovation into the workplace. Your trainer asks you and the rest of the group who can paint a picture. Only a couple of people raise their hand awkwardly after looking around to see if anyone else raised their hand too. Meanwhile, you and the rest of the group immediately start to say things like, “Does it have to look good?” or “I can’t paint.” Just about everybody keeps their hands down, including you.

The ability to think creatively is something we’re all born with. As children we had it and accepted any opportunity to demonstrate it to others. As adults, we seem to have lost it. Why? Because our minds immediately turn to why it won’t work instead of how to make it work when presented with a challenge. Why? Because we are afraid of doing it the wrong way. What’s the unfortunate result? We hold back and play it safe because we’ve allowed ourselves to become overly affected and influenced by the opinions of others. Our ability to innovate and think creatively seems to get lost.

One way to tap back into your creative side is to take a lesson or two with an improvisational comedy troupe. I know what you’re thinking, “I could never do that. I’m not funny.” Hmmm. Really? Thank you for proving my earlier point. Consider these lessons which are based off of the three principles of improv.

Improv Principle No. 1 –

Accept the offer

As you know, improvisational comedy is all about two or more performers feeding off of each other to create a scene from simple prompts shouted out by audience members. No script to memorize and no rehearsal. Can you imagine the disappointment you’d feel if you paid money to go to a comedy show and the performers refused to roll with the unexpected because they were afraid of looking silly? Not only would it be a scene killer, but it would take the funny out of the show you paid to see. In the world of improv, this principle is about being receptive to the unknown which will lead to bigger and better scenes on stage. In the world of business, this principle is all about learning to never say “no” or “can’t” to an idea, obstacle, suggestion or thought. Instead, always find a way to build on it and make it work.

Improv Principle No. 2 –

Listen in the moment

You may not realize this, but improvisational performing requires a high level of focus and decisiveness. Since each sketch is based off of a quick reaction to whatever unfolds, performers must become astute to this. In the world of improv, this principle is all about paying attention to details and being in the moment on stage because anything can fuel the direction of a scene. In the world of business, this principle is about learning to truly listen with all of your senses. Pause, watch, and listen. Doing this will enable you to respond swiftly towards a resolution when you are faced with the unexpected.

Improv Principle No. 3 –

Go with your gut

In improv, trying to be funny on stage instantly makes you unfunny. Instead, the funny comes out when you let your guard down and follow your gut. In the world of improv, this principle is about letting the scene flow wherever it wants and responding naturally with whatever happens to comes out of your mouth. In the world of business, this principle is about trusting your instinct and learning how to react. Don’t bog yourself or the possibilities down with overthinking everything.

The next time you are presented with an obstacle, seize the moment as an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to approach it with a creative spirit. Everyone is creative. You are the only person holding you back by playing it safe.

Elizabeth P. Cipolla is a regional director and senior consultant with JL Nick and Associates Inc. She is a business communications professional specializing in the areas of leadership training, creative recruitment strategies, employment branding, professional development and executive coaching for more than 13 years. Her leadership experience comes from various industries including marketing, mass media, apparel, education, manufacturing, nonprofit agencies and insurance. To contact Elizabeth, email her at ecipolla@jlnick.com or visit JL Nick and Associate’s website at www.jlnick.com.