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  • 11.17.20

Leadership and Improvisational Comedy: The Same Rules Apply

  • by Ellen Peters, Associate Provost, Institutional Research, Planning and Student Success, University of Puget Sound

There are so many leadership models out there—in the business literature, in the psychology literature, in education to name a few—and the models range from servant leadership to autocratic to charismatic to bureaucratic and even following as leading.  

I’m not going to talk about any of those. Instead, let’s talk about improvisational comedy, the core principles of which have been critical to any leadership position I’ve had the privilege to hold. In improvisational comedy, a group of people perform a spontaneously created scene, usually based on a suggestion from the audience. In order for it to be successful, performers must commit to listening, making meaningful contributions, and accepting offers. The parlance of improv may be different, but these are the rules that make improv work. They are the principles that I have tried to employ as a leader. I’ll break each down, but they are tied to one another, and all three work together to make improv—or leadership—successful. 

Much has been written about the importance of listening in relationships. In improv, listening is what creates the relationships. Without it, each performer would be doing their own spontaneous stand-up routine, or operating within their own silo, making a storyline hard to follow. When a leader listens, they provide space for ideas to not only be shared, but to be aligned with a larger vision. There are other ways listening is connected to leadership. Leadership empowers people. In improv, that means the burden of creating a scene doesn’t fall only on one member of the group, and often, the contributions that other group members make takes the scene in a new direction that is a whole lot funnier. When it really goes right, the listening shapes what comes next, and the scene builds in unexpected ways. The same is true for leadership—the contributions of others can make the decision or the project stronger. Sometimes, another person’s perspective helps us to see something differently, or their background and knowledge helps solve a problem. When ideas build on one another, the whole endeavor gets stronger. So, when good leaders model and encourage listening, the work gets better.  

But leadership—and improv—involve more than listening; no forward progress is made when no one shares their ideas. That silence (especially these days, when we are all on video and can’t read body language as well) can make progress a real challenge. And that’s where the next principle of improv comes in: make a meaningful contribution. Of course, that’s why listening is so important. It’s hard to make a contribution truly meaningful without listening first. In improv, listening comes from an audience suggestion. In IR, it comes from the shared problem that is to be solved or the decision that is to be made. Meaningful contributions can require some courage—sharing an idea that comes from a different point of view, or is counterintuitive, can be scary. Good leaders help the contributor share the value of their ideas, clarify the meaning and how it applies to the matter at hand. Listening, in combination with contributing meaningfully, make for good improv and for good leadership.  

And finally, both improv and leadership rely on accepting offers. In improv, this means saying “yes” when someone introduces an idea into a scene. It’s what makes the scene move forward. When someone makes a meaningful contribution, and the immediate response is to deny that idea, the scene comes to a standstill. The same can be true for leadership. Shutting down and idea instead of exploring it makes progress hard to achieve. But pay attention—there is a tendency in academia to tear down and criticize ideas instead of exploring them to see if they will work. It’s a big shift in thinking—trying to make every idea work instead of finding all the reasons that they cannot. And again, this is linked to listening, and to making meaningful contributions.  

In improv, it might look like this: An audience member suggests “dentist,” and one member of the group begins a scene at a construction site. The initial inclination might be to say—but no, we need to start at the dentist’s office, that’s the suggestion. But the humor in the scene may be about journey from the construction site to the dentist—and there’s much more room for creative storytelling, especially if the group listens to one another. Maybe the construction site is building a dentist’s office—or maybe the foreperson has a toothache.  

In IR, we can lead our work from a similar approach. I’m the first one to admit that my ideas aren’t always the best ones. I like to have a team to help explore ideas, to build together. This can be true for everything from figuring out how to code a new academic program to creating an assessment plan. Our institution recently added an undergraduate program in our local women’s correctional facility. IR initially wanted to code it as a new degree program, and we explored that until it became clear that wouldn’t work for the Registrar’s Office. So, we then explored coding it as an attribute, but that didn’t work well for another office. It was through those discussions that we landed on creating a new matriculation code. Had we just said “no” to the first two possibilities, I don’t think we would have come up with the third—it was through those discussions that we were able to fully understand one another’s needs and identify the best way to code this new program.  

I know it’s a stretch to find the parallels between improvisational comedy and leadership, but stretching is what improv is about, and, through listening, making meaningful contributions, and accepting offers, it’s a leadership approach I’ve found to be helpful and rewarding.