Why the 4 Rules of Comedy Improv Will Make You a Better Leader

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a comedian. While my 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.

My only problem was material. All I had were a few really bad knock-knock jokes and scribbled one-liners from the show Different Strokes. 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 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 build a positive culture.

Improv Rule #2: Be Specific

In improv, the more specific you are the better the sketch. If you stick to open-ended questions, you force your partner to do all the work. If we start a sketch and I ask, “What are you doing? Who are you?” the comedy is bland and boring. However, if I say, “That’s a beautiful meat dress you’re wearing. Where did you get it?” You’ve got something to work with—the comedy gets a kick start.

We are more effective leaders, by far, when we give specific directions to those we lead. When I give my team precise details and tasks, I’m setting them up for a win.

When I give them vague assignments that carry on endlessly, I’m wasting their talent, and I’m not working to move our church or organization forward.

Specificity is an underrated leadership quality, but it’s also a revolutionary tool to create momentum.

Improv Rule #3: Make Your Partner Look Good

In improv, every comedian must resist the urge to take the spotlight and overshadow their partner(s). When one actor works to capture the spotlight, the comedy backfires. The audience can easily see when someone is trying to steal the show.

The best improv comes when each person is trying to set the other up for success—giving their best lines away.

In leadership, the same is true. The harder we work to set up success for others, the better chance we have of accomplishing our mission and doing it effectively (not to mention biblically).

When we focus on our own leadership success (at the cost of others), it not only hurts our reputation, it kills momentum and has the reverse effect on the mission.

Set your team up for a win and make it your passion to create paths of success for those you lead.

Improv Rule #4: Raise the Stakes

An improv routine that stays at the same dramatic level doesn’t work—the drama has to heighten with intensity for the audience to feel compelled to follow along. Good actors know that each time they speak, the stakes need to be raised and the story has to progress—sometimes to an absurd level—to really work.

In leadership, if we keep our ministry or organization at the same place, then we’re actually not leading at all. Good leaders look to the future and continually blow-up their vision.

The story your church or organization is telling should grow with intensity and purpose over time. If it hasn’t, there’s a good chance you haven’t tried to raise the stakes.

It’s risky to paint a new vision and chance losing what you have now for the opportunity to see God work in fresh ways, but that’s what leadership is all about—taking others to a place with God that they couldn’t get to on their own.

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Brian Orme
Brian is a writer and editor from Ohio. He works with creative and innovative people to discover the top stories, resources and trends to equip and inspire the Church.