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Leadership – on stage without a script

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Last week we managed to get a day out of the office – for an event we’ve been looking forward to for months.  We met  comedian Neil Mullarkey several months ago at the ICF Global Coaching Conference.  He offered us the chance to see how we could integrate our brand of leadership coaching and development with improv comedy.  As we went through the day, the analogy of a leader being ‘on stage without a script’ became strikingly obvious.

Improv – or Neil’s brand of it – developed when he co-founded London’s famous Comedy Store with Mike Myers.  Husband Bob and I have been there several times, and we trained with the fabulous Marcia Reynolds (author of ‘Outsmart your Brain) who also uses improv in her EQ training.

Maybe you’re familiar with shows like “Whose Line is it Anyway?” where comedians seem to make up the script as they go along.  Loads of audience participation – and two-way heckling…

What Neil impressed on us was the sense of a framework.  Not being tied to a set way of doing things but really tuning into other people and their ideas.  I’m not going to steal his thunder – if the idea of learning while laughing appeals then find out more on his website –

And we see this every day in leaders.  There’s no script that can prepare them for the events that come out of the blue.  They need to be prepared and focused for whatever life throws at them.

Think of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Or the recent beef/horsemeat food labelling scandal.  One CEO goes off script (“I want my life back”) and loses his job.  Another puts his hand on his heart and says “we blew it”.  One is focused on themselves and their own wants and needs.  The other is focused on the people who matter – the customers.

Bob onstage at the comedy store

Bob onstage at the London Comedy Store

There’s a great similarity between a well-known acting improv technique – “Yes, And” – and some of the communications and coaching principles we teach in corporate classrooms.  The ‘Yes, And’ technique is about listening to other people and accepting what they offer – building on their words to create new thoughts, ideas and, in Neil’s case, humour.

Neil has a variation of Yes, And for which his mnemonic is ‘LAGER’ – printed on a beer mat, naturally.  My husband Bob loves the stage, so he jumped in to volunteer whenever the chance arose.  I’m a little more shy, so I just joined in the group work – but some of our fellow funsters really shone on the stage.

In our leadership development work we talk about “Accept, Blend and Create” as a leadership and coaching principle.  You listen to people, accepting their words, ideas and values, blending it with your own to create new possibilities.

This process of co-creation creates buy-in and engagement with others from the outset.  It’s less about competing and more about win-win.

You’ve probably also heard about the communications technique known as ‘bridging’ in the media world.  This enables interviewees to accept a difficult question from hard-hitting journalists, blending it with their own thoughts, controlling the message and sending it in the direction they want the conversation to go.

So, whilst many leaders are caricatured as having ‘command and control’ leadership styles – it doesn’t have to be that way.  We don’t need to control every word of the script, or micro-manage our people.  Listening and empathy build trust.  They also build a style of leadership that can put us on stage – with confidence – yet without a script.


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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