3 Improv Inspired Mindsets for Leading without a Script

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Jeri Dube

Jeri Dube

Since 1983, Jeri Dube has worked for or with businesses—from some of the world’s most successful technology companies to start-ups that never quite made it. Since she was five years old and danced around the living room to her mother’s West Side Story album, she’s always loved performing. After decades of performing in musicals and plays, in 2009, she gave improv comedy a try. She hasn't stopped since. This spring she brought business and improv together in a blog because the insights from her life onstage are surprisingly applicable to what happens off stage. For more info on her background, see her LinkedIn profile (www.linkedin.com/in/JeriDubeMarCom). And if you enjoyed this article keep up with her blog, Out-of-the-black-box Thinking (http://jeriandtheblackbox.wordpress.com).
Jeri Dube

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Communications leader innovating with message and medium to inform, motivate, entertain and enlighten. #writer #improviser #problem-solver
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Jeri Dube
Jeri Dube

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3 Improv Inspired Mindsets for Leading without a Script

With the possible exception of telemarketers, no one has a script for their job and certainly not for their life. Going scriptless is a little harder when you’re a leader or performer because you have an audience. Some of these watchers may even delight in seeing you stumble.

Since it’s the nature of improv to work without scripts, improvisers have found ways to adapt. Below are three that leaders have used when they faced challenges.

1. Control What You Can Control.

For an improviser, control means listening and focusing on what your fellow players are doing. In other words, be ready to end a scene, do a walk-on or add a new storyline. To do this well, improvisers need to stay in the moment.

For leaders, it’s a little more complicated. You not only have to be ready now, you also have to anticipate what could happen.

That was especially true for Sir Ernest Shackleton. Talk about leading without a script—no one before him had ever dealt with the situation he faced. He and his men spent 10 months aboard the ship Endurance while it was trapped in Antarctica’s frozen solid Weddell Sea.

As the weather warmed in the non-linear and crazily cold fashion typical for that part of the planet, the ice pack slowly broke apart. After surviving three attacks of pressures from enormous ice floes, the ship was battered for a fourth and final time. The massive chunks slowly crushed the ship into a torn and twisted pile of lumber.

There was a lot Shackleton couldn’t control:

  • The weather
  • The direction in which the ice floe, where the crew and their belongings were camped, would float—toward or away from land
  • The reactions of his men to their tenuous situation

So he took firm command of what he could.

Knowing the men’s personalities, he was purposeful about the tent assignments. He put the men who were prone to troublemaking with him. He also took special care managing the ego of the expedition photographer Frank Hurley. He asked his opinion on critical matters and invited him to a critical meeting on rationing food.

These interventions, while subtle, ensured that personality issues would not make a bad situation worse.

2. Tolerate Mistakes.

Improvisers do more than just tolerate mistakes they turn them into gifts.

Early in my improv career, I was in a scene with my husband Roger where I was trying to say, “Fuzzy dice”. You know the ones that muscle car owners hang on their rear view mirror. I couldn’t quite remember the term so I bungled the words and it came out as “Fuzzy b-b-b-but dice.”

My husband was all over this and Fuzzy Butt Dice became a major theme in the show. A local critic was watching this particular performance and he loved it. To this day, a few random people in the improv crowd will see me and mention fuzzy butt dice!

A similar experience happened to General Electric’s former CEO Jack Welch but instead of a mispronunciation, his mistake was explosive. Along with several other chemists, Jack was experimenting with a new type of plastic. While they were cooking their new concoction, the giant kettles exploded and flew through the factory roof.

After the incident Charley Reed, a group executive a few levels up in Jack’s chain of command, flew him to New York. Jack was sure he was in a boatload of trouble. But rather than read him the riot act, Charley gently led Jack through a root cause analysis so they could both understand what went wrong.

Although Jack’s mistake was a bit costlier and could have injured someone, it turned into a gift. From that first meeting, Charley Reed became a guiding force in Jack’s assent through GE. Plus, Jack followed his mentor’s example and never berated employees when they were down. (Story Source: Forbes’ Best Business Mistakes by Bob Sellers)

 3. Trust Your Team.

You may not have a script, but you probably have smart people around who can help.

Last year I was on a Harold team with five other people where the format called for very fast edits toward the end of the set. Each team member had to be ready in an instant to replace whoever had center stage. All six of us wanted what we said to be funny or at least make sense, but that wasn’t as important as maintaining a fast pace.

Even though what we said didn’t matter, it was difficult to come forward. It’s just human nature to have an inkling of what you’ll do while standing in front of an audience. But we just had to do it. Knowing that a teammate would have our back gave us the courage we needed.

When leadership coach and Trust Ambassador Bob Whipple was given the task of delivering a high capacity disk drive to market in only 13 weeks, which was really only nine weeks since testing took four, that too was a script-less endeavor.

In Bob’s case, he wasn’t really a part of this team until he was given this assignment. But his group had been working on this project two years. Although they had struggled to get the disk out the door, they were experts on it.

Bob kicked off the 13(9) weeks with a two-day meeting where he learned that his team needed to start over with a new design. Unlike many who might discount the expertise of the team who had failed to deliver, Bob believed in them. Their experience had taught them how to make it work. Although they ran into numerous speed bumps, through Bob’s trust and support they stayed on track, met their milestones and delivered to market on time.

And so…

Even though there’s comfort in knowing what’s ahead, not knowing is one of life’s delights. With a few coping mechanisms that increase the odds of your success, it’s even better. And when it doesn’t work out the way you’d want, look for the gift that mishaps and even disasters can bring.