When I was growing up, I wanted to be a comedian. While my other friends dreamt of major league baseball careers, I was up in my room writing jokes.
When I was eight years old, I remember tearing out the map in the back of our Encyclopedia Brittanica and tracing the route of my comedy tour with a red ballpoint pen. I would travel from the East to the West Coast—ending at the Tonight Show in Los Angeles. My only problem was material. All I had were a few knock-knock jokes and scribbled one-liners from the Cosby Show. I’ve long since left my desire to be in comedy (although I can kill it with a group of 4 and 5 year olds), and today I’m more focused on being a good leader—in my church, family, and ministry. And even though I’ve left that dream behind (still available for dinner parties), I believe there are some great take-aways from the rules of comedy—specifically improv—that will make you a better leader.
You might not think of leadership when you watch the latest sketch on Saturday Night Live, The Office, Parks and Recreation, or the classic, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, but there’s a lot to be gleaned from the quirky rules that guide comics through a successful run. These universal rules provide the right atmosphere for comedic flow, collaboration, and creativity. Every improv comic knows these rules by heart and to break them would be nothing less than amateur.
Good leadership, just like comedy, requires intentionality, discipline, and a good bit of risk. Here’s how I think good leaders should leverage the rules of improv to be more effective.
Improv Rule #1: Start with Yes
Nothing kills improv like a partner who continually shuts down the momentum with “No.” Improv only works when all parties involved are committed to moving the dialogue forward.
For example, if we’re doing improv and I say, “Do you like Klondike bars?” and you say, “No,” the bit hits a wall. However, if I say, “Do you like Klondike bars?” and you say, “Yes, especially when riding a polar bear bareback and listening to Jay-Z,” then we’re moving, we’ve got something—it might not be funny yet, but it’s going somewhere.
Is your general leadership posture positive or critical? Are you known for pointing out all the problems or creating solutions? Being a “Yes” leader means you’re on track with the mission and vision and ready to do what it takes to push it forward. There are times to be critical in leadership, for sure, but effective leaders work hard to keep a positive posture—ready to respond to their team with a “can do” attitude.