Jeter, Giuliani, and Gates: Great Leaders Who Improvise

Last Updated Feb 16, 2010 8:55 PM EST

Tongue-tied in exchanges with colleagues? Not getting the most out of your team? Business improv might be for you! Bob Kulhan translates improvisational acting techniques into the business setting for MBA students at Duke's Fuqua School of Business and in myriad other orgnizations, as well. Last week, we discussed the methods he uses to teach improv in the business setting. This week, we'll see how they impact leadership skills and team dynamics.

BNET: What are the common signs that people aren't being reactive enough to people and their surroundings -- that they're not improvising?

Kulhan: Watch interviews on CNN. If you're looking for it, you can easily tell when someone is reacting honestly in the moment and listening to what's being said as opposed to regurgitating stock answers. These pundits and spinmeisters spin their webs, and half the time they don't even answer the question that was asked, even though they're softball questions.

Look at professional athletes. Those who are able to adapt in the moment are the ones who enjoy greater success. That could be in a fast-moving sport like basketball, but also in a planned "chess game" on the baseball field. The great infielders like Derek Jeter are the ones who are on their toes.

In the business setting, for my money, the people who are able to take advantage of unexpected changes built the companies that are famous today. Early on, Bill Gates was able to improvise and find an opportunity to sell DOS to IBM -- he showed he was adapting. The other characters in that scenario, IBM and the company from whom Gates essentially bought DOS, weren't as reactive. Gates was able to take advantage of opportunities presented by the actions of peers and competitors.

BNET: How can improvisations be a part of leading and inspiring a team?

Kulhan: Any great leader uses improvisation in the moment to rally the troops and inspire them. A classic model in my mind was Rudi Giuliani after the 9/11 attack. He displayed many of the great leadership traits: being seen, being constant, projecting a voice and image of stability, and so on. He had to weigh a lot of options for his time and react to suggestions from his team. He made a decision to attend as many of the funerals for firefighters killed on that day as he could, which was a very adept reaction to the circumstance he was presented with.

Good athletic coaching is an example of improvisation at its highest levels. Everyone on the team learns the skill set necessary, they do the push-ups and the cardio to physically prepare, they pore over the playbook and examine the opponent's inclinations...they research out the wazoo. But then, real time, they are required to react and adapt.

BNET: How can an individual make himself or herself better at this?

Kulhan: Fortunately, these are great times for this art form and there are lots of mom-and-pop shops teaching this art form around the world. If you have a college campus near you, there is improvisation being taught. It's not hard to find workshops more dedicated to the business environment. But however you learn improvisation, the great thing about the human mind is that we can make links between the skills we learn and our own background and needs. I've taught this to doctors, lawyers and policemen who find a lot of value in the Second City improv class that is geared toward actors; they make the links themselves. There are some books I would recommend. First, Improvisation for the Theatre by Viola Spolin is kind of the "Improv 101." Improvise by Mick Napier is another great book that people can draw linkages from. There are also a lot of great online resources. I tell my students that this is an art not a science, so you really need to hunt out the pieces you like from various people who put their ideas out there.

BNET: If someone works within an organization that might be suspect of these kinds of techniques, what are the baby steps one can use to introduce them -- without anyone knowing it?

Kulhan: Good question. It's the "without anyone knowing it" that's the curve ball here. One important thing to do would be to use the phrase "yes, and" (as discussed in last week's post). There's a huge difference between "yes, and" and "yes, but" -- and I don't believe the majority of the people in this world recognize the difference.

We train each other. When you have conversations with someone on a regular basis, you are training them to understand that you are a supportive person or a negative person, that you are a person who accepts ideas, or someone who shoots ideas down. Putting "yes, and" into your own vocabulary and philosophy makes you someone who listens and builds on other people's ideas. You can still debate or disagree, but this vocabulary shows you recognized the importance of what a person said.

I would also recommend finding a confederate, a person or two in your organization who will hold you on task that you are indeed changing your habits. This holds you accountable and reveals when you violate the new habits you are trying to instill, so you can make sure you get that young colleague's input if you originally shot his idea down, for instance. This helps you make sure you set the right tone and make the right decision as the leader.

You can learn more about Kulhan's techniques at http://businessimprov.com/

  • Jeremy Dann

    Jeremy Dann is a Lecturer in Marketing at UCLA's Anderson School of Management and an innovation consultant and writer. He has been a contributor to several business and technology publications and is the founding editor of "Strategy & Innovation."