the ceo magazine, leadership qualities,
Bob Kulhan, President, CEO & Founder, Business Improv

At first glance, “improvisational leadership” might seem to be contradiction in terms. Leaders are thoughtful, strategic people; improvisation is a comedic art form and a team sport in which no one person is greater than the ensemble. However, when you redirect the tenets of improvisation away from comedy and toward leadership, they help your team perform at its best—by postponing judgment, communicating and connecting, leveling status, and achieving mindfulness. Improv isn’t a replacement for strategic thinking; rather, it’s a tool to buttress and support thoughtfulness and strategy. And that crucial moment when planning and strategy collide with execution is where improvisation shines.

How can you use improvisation to facilitate leadership development, help create team culture, and support the individuals in those environments? There’s no single equation for creating a great leader; if there were, there would be many more great leaders out there. But the very essence of improvisation is awareness and adaptability, both of which play a critical role in leadership. A leader must be aware enough to recognize what there is to work with in a given team, and adaptable enough to shape circumstances toward a desired conclusion. A leader must constantly make sense of the changing pieces in a moving puzzle—precisely how an improviser performs—and an improvisational leader understands how to use both EQ and IQ.1

Here are four ways to develop improvisational leadership skills.

Postpone Judgment

To be as clear as contact lenses, postponing judgment is not abandoning judgment. Postponing judgment defers critical thinking for a time to allow open communication and a free exchange of ideas. This is important because in the business world, “judgment” is often actually prejudgment—ideas are shot down before they are entirely presented or even completely understood. The enduring effect of this is that talented people begin to feel dismissed as well. Postpone judgment by deliberately taking time to be thoughtful about what someone is saying to you before swiftly rejecting it.

Communicate and Connect

If you are in business, you are in the people business. Underlying our personal bonds and connections is a fundamental human desire to be understood—this is what galvanizes all great relationships in our lives. The traits most closely associated with improvisational leadership are the desire to contribute personally and authentically, build relationships, create a team that will serve a greater purpose, lead with passion, and support and protect the team you create. Improvisation is an art form based in communication and connection. Use the improv techniques of focused listening, concentration, and (once again) postponement of judgment with the people you lead—to understand them as much as they desire to understand you, to reduce status bias, and to create an openness to learn.

Follow the Follower

I introduced this well-worn improv idiom to the U.S. Naval Academy in their 2014 Leadership Conference. On a panel titled “Change from Below: Creativity, Dissent and Reshaping” I defined “Follow the Follower” as a means of lowering your own status to communicate and connect with the newer members of your team. 2 In this practice, the “following” doesn’t imply a surrender of authority. Rather, it refers to a leadership mindset in which a leader is able to level status—making him or her vulnerable enough to learn from all talent and be open to thoughts, perspectives, opinions, and alternate approaches from subordinates. To an enlightened leader, “Follow the Follower” means that by focusing on the people you lead, they will focus on you in return.

Be Mindful

An improvisational leader must develop the skillset required to be present and in the moment—something at the core of all improvisation. In improv, this kind of mindfulness is achieved by clinging to the phrase “Think slow to move fast.” This may seem counterintuitive; however, when you slow down and focus on being present, you dramatically increase the probability that you discover opportunities right in front of you—offers that might be overlooked or ignored when you’re thinking (or moving) too quickly. A leader who develops this state of mindfulness will be aware of his or her actions and team, and able to make vital changes in the moment to influence, inspire, and engage others.

1. Goleman, Daniel, “What Makes a Leader,” Harvard Business Review, Emotional Intelligence, January 2004, https://hbr.org/2004/01/what-makes-a-leader

2. U.S. Naval Academy, “Change from Below: Creativity, Dissent and Re- shaping,” 2014 Leadership Conference, www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ranv-Pct8 Q&index=4&list=PLY2Foc7RFdI0s-Su_P22xCmABJX3dIiGm


About the Author

Bob Kulhan 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, and author of GETTING TO “YES, AND”: The Art of Business Improv (Stanford Business Books; January 24, 2017). 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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