Unless you’ve been smart enough to live under a rock for the past year, you know we’ve had sweeping changes in our political leadership. To say the landscape has shifted is an understatement. Business as usual has been pureed. Everyone is adapting to a new playing field whether they like it or not.
Regardless of which side we’re on, we’re reminded that none of us are immune from change, especially at work. How we manage the challenges we face in our career depends on our ability to be flexible. So when the other shoe drops and the wheels fall off, how do you react? Does this sound familiar?
Thriving in uncertainty is the linchpin of Improvisation. At Second City, we’ve made a living getting on stage in front of a live audience with no idea what we’re going to say. Our success hinges on our response to change. For most people, swimming with sharks in open water seems preferable to the anxiety of this art form. But we know that just beyond our fear is our greatest potential. The behaviors and habits that come from learning to stand in the space of the unknown, can give leaders valuable skills to sustain relationships, drive innovation and create influence in a turbulent climate.
One of the first things we learn in improvisation is to say “thank you” for any information we get from the audience or from our scene partner. This practice trains our brain to immediately frame everything we hear as an opportunity from which to build. We may not like the information or the person giving it, but that is irrelevant to our goal of co-creation. When your world feels like a hot mess, it may not be your first instinct to be grateful for what’s happening. Leadership means we take a breath, detach from emotion and thoughtfully respond. Staying open instead of getting defensive, gives us a way to move forward regardless of the outcome. We’re drawn to leaders who can hear the great news and the difficult news with the same disposition. Improv focuses us on what we can control, which in the end, is only our own behavior.
In our world, we crave the curve balls, the ideas that ignore gravity and make us think in new ways. Our strength is the collaboration of many minds that don’t think alike. On stage, strong leadership looks like stepping into the abyss and making big, bold choices. It may feel counter-intuitive to take risks in a changing environment, but when new solutions are needed, so are new ways of finding them. As a leader, you can set the tone for how your team will move through obstacles. We use the philosophy of “Yes, And” to brainstorm with space for failure. This is the fundamental tool we use on stage to build our scenes line by line with our ensemble. Our process begins with saying Yes to all possibilities, which creates momentum and inspiration along the way. Then we add our qualifiers and concerns and the ability to say no. By reverse engineering the way we look for solutions and take risks, we lead through empowerment.
It’s not what you say, but how you say it, that either uplifts or deflates the people in your sphere. In Improv, we have to be able to initiate ideas and support ideas with the same vigor. Both skills are equally valued in our culture. For us, leaders don’t emerge because they’re talking 95% of the time and elbowing their way to the spotlight. Our greatest players are the ones who can both lead and follow depending on what is needed in the moment. Business demands leaders to develop the same kind of attunement. Influence is a deft hand, sometimes best played by adding to someone else’s idea instead of manufacturing one in a vacuum. Great leadership is flexible and self aware, finding moments to lead the charge or moments to step back to let others shine.
Leadership decisions can be hardest to execute when your world is less certain. But this is when what you do determines who you are. Give yourself permission to welcome change. Don’t have all the answers. Take it from us; it’s more fun that way.