Be a Better Leader

Improvisation Intelligence: How Can You Become a Better Leader?

The word leadership and what it means is a hot topic. A simple Google search brings up almost 800,000 responses for the term leadership. Everything from the standard dictionary definition and articles about what makes a good leader, why leadership matters, and how to become a better leader.

Leadership in business management is an area of increasing concern, if a recent study is any indication. According to the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report on Employee Advocacy, a whopping 1 in 3 employees don’t trust their employer. The study indicates managers are focusing too much on short-term, rather than long-term goals.

What makes a great leader?

If you ask people what makes a great leader, be prepared to hear a wide range of ideas. Some will list attributes like confidence, strength, or idealism. Others may describe actions, such as leading by example or looking at a problem and coming up with a solution. A common thread is the belief that leaders know how to define and achieve goals, while inspiring others along the way.

Business News Daily staff writer, Brittney Helmrich, talked to business owners, experts and managers about what leadership means and came up with 33 definitions. Two of my favorites from her post are:

“Leadership is stepping out of your comfort zone and taking risk to create reward.” – Katie Easley, founder, Kate Ryan Design

“Leadership is caring more about the cause and the people in your company than about your own personal pain and success. It is about having a greater vision of where your company is trying to go while leaving the path open for others to grow into leaders.” – Jarie Bolander, COO and co-founder, Lab Sensor Solutions

Then, what is missing from the leadership equation?

If we have so many good examples of what makes a great leader, why are so many employees unhappy with their employers – the very leaders they are meant to follow? Defining leadership isn’t the same as being a great leader. Not long ago, companies looked for leaders with high IQs. Intelligence was considered a reliable indicator of a person’s success. Smart people could analyze complex data and come to intelligent decisions about what to do next.

Now, we know that isn’t enough. Today’s business environment requires emotional intelligence, or EQ for short. Two psychologists, John Mayer and Peter Salovey came up with the concept but it was Daniel Goleman’s bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence, which introduced the concept to millions of readers worldwide. Simply put, EQ is, according to Goleman, “the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.”

While IQ is considered fairly fixed throughout your life, EQ can change. That’s a good thing, because according to Talent Smart, EQ is responsible for 58% of your job performance.

How can you raise your EQ?

Our brains possess the ability to generate pathways by practicing new emotionally intelligent behaviors. Neurologists credit plasticity for the brain’s ability to change. So learning physically changes our brains. It is pretty amazing to think that we can actually improve the communication pathways that are so essential between the emotional and rational centers of our brains, through experiential learning.

Unfortunately, many leadership training programs rely on lecture-based Power Point presentations with outmoded ideas and methods that mimic classroom style, individually focused exercises. Flexibility and self-awareness are becoming more important in today’s workforce. If companies hope to recruit and retain employees who are creative, collaborative, dynamic and intuitive – all highly sought qualities – they can generate greater success with training that teaches the tenets of improvisation.    

You might wonder what improvisation and business have in common. Quite a lot. Agility and the ability to think on your feet are essential skills in a fast-paced business environment. Improvisation helps to enhance those skills in an effective, experiential and supportive setting.

Improvisation is an ideal method for fostering emotional intelligence because it features an open, collaborative experience, creative techniques for shifting away from limiting mental structures, and instead, focuses on the possibilities of roads not taken.

Improvisation can be applied to a range of skill building in:

  • Change Management
  • Employee Engagement
  • Leadership and Influence
  • Negotiation Skills
  • Preparing for Performance Reviews
  • Strengthening Leadership

Emotional intelligence recognizes and utilizes the power of emotions. For trainers working to promote new learning and behavior change, both creativity and emotional intelligence are at the heart of enhancing receptivity and reducing the sense of threat that often comes with change, even when that change is viewed as a positive step.

Practicing Improv

The practice of improv trains the mind to be more fully present and responsive in all human interactions. This helps participants to cultivate a high EQ to better understand and develop self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. Some people think of improv as unscripted comedy and while it is fun, it is so much more.

Improvisational training and spontaneous thinking help develop skills for intuitive and creative action “in the moment.” When led by experienced improv performers with organizational experience the art of improvisation is combined with business management skills so employees learn to react and adapt, enhancing their leadership toolkit.

How improv exercises work

Improvisation might be approached by some with hesitation. Why? Because a participant doesn’t really know what to expect. Actually, that can be half the fun. Take the game that works with patterns. Let’s call it the Name Pattern Game. You start with a familiar basic pattern – everyone standing in a circle.

The facilitator starts off by pointing to someone in the circle and saying their first name. This person randomly points to someone else in the circle and says that person’s name, while keeping their hand pointed at the person. The exercise keeps going until each person gets to raise their hand and say the first name of a person they are pointing to. No fair choosing the same person twice. The last participant points to the facilitator and says the facilitator’s name to complete the circle. Then the participants are asked to point to the person who gave them their name, and the person they gave a name to. The exercise is repeated with this same pattern for at least two more consecutive rounds so each person becomes comfortable. The facilitator will encourage the group to go faster.

But if the purpose of the exercise is to disrupt our automatic and mental patterning and keep us in the “here and now” – there has to be more to it. So the improv exercise moves to the second pattern where participants are told they will now practice a new pattern. Like the first exercise, one participant points to someone (a different person than in the 1st round) and says something in a category, like your favorite dessert. This is repeated going randomly around the circle and as before, there can be no repetition of people being pointed at or food mentioned. Start with the name pattern and in about 30 seconds, begin the dessert pattern, so two patterns are going at the same time. Someone will generally drop one. They are encouraged to keep their concentration and keep the momentum going with both patterns.

It really gets challenging, and sometimes a bit hilarious when a third pattern is introduced by adding a third category like a favorite animal or sports team or song.

There are a number of other improv exercises that can increase EQ:

  • Eye Contact/No Eye Contact with the objective of experiencing the impact of eye contact in silent interaction with others and experiencing the impact of eye contact on emotional states and emotional connection;
  • What Am I Doing? The objective of the game is to increase spontaneity and to produce mind/body dissonance, which can enhance creativity;
  • What You Are Saying Is… This game focuses on listening without interpretation to what another person is saying with the objective of developing creative thinking while fostering interpersonal skills of attentive listening and responding without judgement.

Curious about your own EQ rating? There are a number of sites that offer free quizzes. This one looks at EQ and Leadership – Do You Lead with Emotional Intelligence? They recommend you take the quiz and then ask one or two trusted friends to evaluate you using the same statements, to see if they share your perceptions. No matter how you score – keep in mind that learning more about yourself is a good thing and can build your EQ at the same time.


Lisa Safran is the President and Founder of Improv Consultants, providing experiential professional development training programs to individuals, businesses, and teams. She brings years of theater and improv experience to her work as a training strategist. She also helps her executive clients strengthen communication & leadership skills, and develop healthier teams. Lisa is the author of, Executive Presence Improv Style.

Whether you are seeking to complete a writing project, raise your organization’s visibility, produce an e-book, re-design your website, or write a blog, Kate Fitzsimmons can create compelling materials to highlight your work!