An Unlikely Lesson

Leadership Lessons from the
World of Improv

A few years ago I attended a gathering of conscious capitalists in Chicago. The two days were chock full of great programming around the principles of higher purpose, stakeholder integration, conscious culture, and leadership.

In thinking back on the experience, the most impactful and memorable moment for me was an evening performance by Second City. (I suspect many of my fellow attendees would agree.) Second City brought to life many of the leadership lessons from their recent book, Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverse “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration.

It may be surprising that a premier comedy and improv troupe can offer helpful advice on leadership. Their insights were thought provoking, memorable, and immediately accessible:

Leaders need to be open to possibility.

We need to clearly demonstrate to our people that we “have their back.”

We should strive to create environments ripe for truly collaborative ensemble performances, a state beyond teamwork where everyone pulls together and no one needs to be the star performer.

A whole unit that is greater than the sum of its parts.

While these are all important lessons, I was particularly struck when they took a familiar leadership story and gave it a twist.

Turning a leadership parable on its head.

There is a classic story of leadership vision that goes like this:

A man came upon a construction site where three people were working. He asked the first, “What are you doing?” and the man replied: “I am laying bricks.” He asked the second, “What are you doing?” and the man replied: “I am building a wall.” As he approached the third, he heard him humming a tune as he worked, and asked, “What are you doing?” The man stood, looked up at the sky, smiled, and said, “I am building a cathedral!”

The fact that all the people in this story are men should give you a clue as to how old this business parable is. Despite its lack of gender diversity, I have always appreciated the moral of the story: our mindset and attitude greatly affect the quality of our work.

Yet, when Second City takes the story, they have a different take: Bring a brick, not a cathedral.

Bring a brick.

This simple paradox really strikes at the heart of leadership and teamwork. As leaders and contributors to a larger team, we always want to show up prepared to deliver our best performance. Yet it’s important to show up ready and willing to contribute brick by brick, rather than thinking we should show up with our own cathedral.

As leaders, this means we should resist over-directing and micro-managing our people. We hired them for their brick-laying capabilities. So let them judge which brick to lay next!

As contributors, we can be more flexible in bringing our brick-sized contributions to the cathedral building effort. If we show up with strict blueprints for the design of the full-blown cathedral, we limit the possibility inherent in our team. We also impose unnecessary hierarchy into our workplace, reducing the chance of experiencing the magic that can happen only with an ensemble performance.

Being a yes, and leader.

Since Second City’s performance, I’ve been challenging myself to see the possibility in everyone and stay open to that possibility. I want to have the back of my collaborators, and make sure they know it. I’ve been bringing a brick (and not a cathedral) so that I can play my proper part. And I’m seeing firsthand that, when we say “yes, and” rather than “no, but,” we free ourselves to enjoy the experience of leading and contributing to a true ensemble.

Surprised by these insights? Connect with Tom! Give us a call at (859) 415-1000 or drop us a line in the form at the bottom of this page.

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