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)
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
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.
Be mindful of your team and your role by specifically using
“Yes, and…”. M
ake 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.
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.
: 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.
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.
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
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. 
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?
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.
: Go ahead, be
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.
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. 
:  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.

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
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.