Improv – Not a Great Leadership Strategy

leadership developmentImprov comedy makes great theatre and for anyone who has seen people perform it well, it’s hilarious.  Improv also works to help bring people out of their shells and helps them get over stage fright. Improv could also be a great strategy for innovation when gathering ideas and trying to find solutions to problems. But improvisation as a leadership strategy? Not so successful and here’s why – leaders are looked to for stability, to be the adult in the room, to reassure their followers that they are “safe,” and to emphasize that whatever decision or message being delivered is the right one. Every single word or action of the leader is watched, interpreted and dissected for meaning. Whether the action or words had meaning or not, one will be assigned. For leaders, words and actions are the legacy of leadership.

When messaging and actions are “off-the-cuff” and improvised, mistakes can be made, contradictions happen and followers are left wondering what to believe or to do. Like the childhood game of whipsaw, if you’re at the end of the rope, as a follower, you’re likely to be whipped off. After multiple such whips, the leader loses the confidence of their people and they will stop following.

In an organization, the phrase “steady at the helm” is appreciated. When a leader behaves with steadiness, the team performs better. When the leader has done his or her research and is informed before speaking or making decisions, the followers are assured that the direction is the right one. When the speech or actions are not thoughtful and are just “in the moment” they can come across as disconnected and people can be unsettled and lose faith in the leader’s ability to achieve objectives.

As a leader of your organization, it’s on you not to be the improv comedian. Leadership is not funny. People are not looking for you to surprise and delight them, they are looking for you to lead. To know what, why, and where things are going and to share clearly “what’s in it for us” to the employees.  Occasionally, the organization may be delighted, but only if the words are followed by actions that reinforce the statements and are consistent with the overall mission and objectives.

Leadership is also not about the leader per se. It’s about what the leader does, what strategies are employed, and how people are treated. It’s about purpose – whatever strategy, goals, and objectives are serving the greater good of the organization. “Level 5 leadership” as Jim Collins talks about in his book Good to Great defines the leader as humble. Humble leaders are thoughtful, careful and curious. Words and actions matter. To paraphrase a Chinese proverb – when the leader is finished, the people say it happened naturally.  No improv involved.