Don't Be A Visionary: Leadership Lessons from Improv

This article originally appeared in the Monthly Recharge published by Leadership+Design.

When I started the messy work of being a new Head of School, it felt like I was improvising every day. One of the required readings in my graduate work through the Klingenstein Center was The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels.  However, my first 90 days only bore a passing resemblance to what I would have planned beforehand.

Improv is one way of approaching that situation. In the popular understanding, improv might simply be “fake it until you make it.” But improv teaches more than the ability to make it up as you go along. Great leadership doesn’t fake it, even as it’s deeply adaptive. Rather, I’ve found that an improv mindset has helped me discover a future path, even in the midst of uncertainty.

Here are three lessons I’ve learned from improv as a leader:

  1.  Listen before you decide what to say.
    The value of listening is a leadership cliche because it’s so rarely done in practice. That’s especially true when people are coming in to deliver something that’s hard to hear. Parents coming in to critique your school’s program; teachers grumbling; a supervisor delivering feedback that feels unfair. I often think I know what to say. I’m almost always better off when I defer a reaction until the other person is finished.
  2.  Get excited about someone else’s idea.
    One of the principles of improv is to make your partner look great in a performance. Whatever they come up with, it’s the best idea in the world - and it’ll look that way to the audience if you not only convey enthusiasm, but build on it in a way that carries the whole performance forward. Everyone is more excited when they see an initiative as their idea.
  3. Build a story together.
    One of my favorite exercises in improv is the one where you build a story one word at a time, and it’s become a regular family car trip go-to. It works literally, but it also works as metaphor. When you come in as a leader, you’re joining a story that was going on before you ever got there. It’s not about your unique vision - it’s about building on shared vocabulary, rituals, and values. And if you do your job right, the story will build on what you’ve added well after you’re gone. 

I blame Steve Jobs (or at least his cultural representations) for creating the pressure for leaders to behave like visionaries. In reality, the best idea could come from anywhere. And you won’t always see it coming until your team adds the last word.

Greg Bamford