“What is your leadership style?”

Let me take you back a few years when I first returned from the States. I was incredibly excited to be back–I had a clear vision I wanted to drive and stayed late nights to put my plans into motion.

Cut to December–my group and I were huddled in a room talking about our work priorities for the coming year.

I laid out my analysis, insights and concluded with a refreshed strategy that I thought would fundamentally transform our industry.

As the meeting progressed, I sensed that my carefully crafted presentation was not eliciting the level of enthusiasm I expected from my team members. I was surprised–and tired. It felt like I was pulling the team along.

After the meeting, a few people came up to me: “I think it’s a great vision! But it would have been nice to have been part of the process leading to it”.

That was my first lesson in leadership.

improv lessons for leadership

A change

About a year later, I started taking improv classes.

Storytelling had always been close to my heart–it allowed me to connect to people when I had to move across different schools, countries and continents as a child. I was curious about exploring a new way of spontaneous storytelling.

Around that time, my entire team changed.

I was faced with the challenging task of training every member, vetting every piece of work and imparting knowledge to everyone.

At some point in our group meetings, I realised I was the one doing all the talking and setting the agenda items. I would run through the discussion points, share information and call the meeting over in 45 minutes.

But something I learned in improv had percolated in my mind.

Its fundamental philosophy of building onto other’s ideas while contributing your own made me wonder whether I could turn leadership on its head.


Applying improv concepts at work

As I watched my improv teammates develop entire sequences of events using each other’s ideas and have fun doing it, I remembered that December meeting and decided to apply improv concepts in my work.

For instance, the team agreed that our knowledge of case studies was weak.

But instead of me teaching, the members themselves would take turns teaching each other every week.

Getting people to debate, acknowledge others’ suggestions and develop new ideas allowed a chain reaction of ideas to generate organically.

I stopped dictating strategy and vision – the members led initiative discussions during offsite and every work priority became the result of a group brainstorm session. It was no longer my vision but a shared one across the team.

The difference in the level of energy, ideas and enthusiasm was immediate. It felt like I had created a small spark and all that was left was to ensure the energies were channelled productively.

A year later, at the end of another December work plan session, I asked my team members how they felt about the discussions – my litmus test was an experienced team member who generally held no punches in her feedback.

She turned to me and smiled, “I feel energized”. That was one of my most gratifying moments of the year.

leader meeting

Giving individual agency to develop collective agency

Improv helped me realize that storytelling consists of multiple narratives

  • one created by the storyteller
  • others are the many stories that form in each person’s mind as it filters through our own experiences, values and feelings.

And interestingly, while narratives tend to fracture when it’s told from the viewpoint of one person, they can converge into a more coherent whole when people are given the license to change, add or modify a group narrative – and update it in real time.

So perhaps what I learned from improv the most, which I started applying at work, was to learn how to lose control of the narrative–and to unlock tremendous creativity through collective creation.

It was in giving agency to each person, that gave the group a sense of collective agency and ownership.

The “Yes, And” philosophy of building onto each other’s ideas became a driving force that increased the level of trust overall in the group.

I don’t profess to have the answers, and while I suspect many aspects of teamwork is about creating the right balance, my own improv and leadership journey made me that much more patient and empathetic as a person.

So what is my leadership style?

For me, a lot of it centres around compassion and trust – but to do that, you have to see yourself as part of the larger picture and be comfortable giving people the agency to form a shared vision.

And I have improv to thank for that. Yes, And indeed.


About the author
Sheryl Chen works in the biomedical sciences sector. She is a graduate student of the Improv Company and enjoys playing with other fellow improvisers. Sheryl is also an alumna of Group Photo Here and a member of Photo Spam, the one-night-only love child of fellow groups Group Photo Here and The Spam Artists.

Categories: Applied Improv

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