Adaptive Leadership Through Improvisation

Leadership Meeting Photo

Despite the best-designed plans and the most thought-out strategies, business is sweat-drenched in unpredictability. Uncontrollable forces collide the moment that strategy meets execution. It is at this pivotal point that the skills needed for successful improvisation – reacting, adapting, and communicating – are paramount and must be employed.

Improv techniques are not confined to a single intersection, however. The skills of targeted thinking, rapid decision-making and adaptive problem solving that improvisation naturally enhances can effortlessly be used in countless day-to-day activities: cultivating creativity (in self and others), grappling with shifting demands, overpowering analysis paralysis, streamlining redundant meetings, managing conflict, handling crisis, encouraging nimbleness and flexibility, curating a collaborative culture, and igniting intrinsic motivation in others.

Think about the evolving trends in the business world. We now rely on immediate, all-hour communication as well as mobile access to critical information. Any businesses that struggle with this are considered to be practically out of the game. As a result, the way we compete has changed, and our competition itself has adapted. Consequently, it has become imperative to adopt a variety of methodologies for effective communication and collaboration, which must take place between and across cultures–corporate, consumer, and geographic.1

Outside the purview of our pervasively changing workplace prevails the elementary principle that we are still human—beings with incredible talents, inherent flaws and undeniable limitations—and unless we choose a truly solitary existence, we are obliged to engage in basic, personal communication with each other. Further, in common workplace interactions, the potential to understand and celebrate diversity of perspectives—the reality that one’s co-workers and clients see things differently than we sees things—is more likely than any other time in history and must now be factored in to how we do business. To put it bluntly: elite-level reacting, adapting, and communicating (i.e. improv) are not options for businesspeople; they are essential to basic survival, and improvisation is an astonishingly effective tool for championing interpersonal communication, establishing connections and developing meaningful relationships.

Improvisational leadership is about connection and engagement. Whether one is guiding a team, heading a department, facilitating a meeting, running a brainstorming session, presenting a proposal, or managing a crisis, the same skills and mind-set that make an excellent improviser make an excellent leader.

How precisely does an improvisational leader get a team to rise to greatness and achieve the best results in the end?

I would break it down by following this roadmap:

Stay on target. An “improvisational” leader does not mean an “unprepared” leader. The improvisational leader begins any team-leading function with a clear understanding of end results and a deliberate strategy how to accomplish the mission. Elite improvisers know what the end goals are and adapt when needed to achieve them.

Communicate. The leader must distinctly and explicitly communicate expectations and goals to the individuals in the team and be open to receiving valuable information from people in the team in return. Improvisation is a communication-based art form. Improvisers must stay focused and in the moment to react and communicate in real-time.

Be thoughtful. Leaders must also be clear and specific in deciding how to personally achieve the expected outcomes. Be conscious of your actions and your language and make adjustments in real time to make sure you are affecting the people around you in the way you intend to. Great improvisers have a keen sense of awareness–self, team, process and project–and make subtle changes to influence and affect their fellow teammates.

Be a student of your team. Take time to learn every team member’s capabilities–strengths and weaknesses–and lead each person accordingly. As leader, you give purpose to a member’s place within the team, and if you focus on the people you lead, they will focus more on your success as a leader. Improv is a team sport and improvisers take tremendous pride in the team. In understanding that the team is more important than any one member, we prove that the group’s collective intelligence is smarter than any one person in it.

Motivate. Most corporate leaders agree that motivation (and inspiration) is an attractive concept and relevant to the workplace.2 As a call to action that resonates to the core of every team member, an improvisational leader develops motivation in others by creating a welcoming work environment, removing obstacles to success, searching for opportunities to improve, manipulating energy, trusting a team to do its job, and always maintaining open, honest, candid channels for two-way communication. Improvisers are motivated to perform improv out of sheer desire and not because of externals factors. (The extreme majority of improvisers do not get paid to perform.)

Level status.  The improv phrase “Follow the Follower” is an excellent way to understand the importance of leveling status and fostering talent. Though an improvisational leader is still ultimately in charge, that person exhibits an openness to the perspectives, thoughts, ideas, and interactions of the people s/he leads. In essence, “Follow the Follower” creates a loop of engagement – when you are open to engage the people you lead, they will want to with you in return. Improvisers “create something out of nothing” by focusing intensely on our fellow performers, which results each sound and movement becoming a gift and an offer to develop material in real-time.


1. Hummel, Denise Pirrotti, “Understanding the Importance of Culture in Global Business,” Pro t Magazine, May 2012; Kante, R. M., “Strategy as Improvisational Theatre,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Winter 2002, 76–81.
2. Witt, Chris, “How to Motivate and Inspire Your People in Di cult Times,” reliableplant, June 29, 2009, www.reliableplant.com/Read/18525/how -to-motivate-inspire-your-people-in-di cult-times

Written by: Bob Kulhan, founder and chief executive of Business Improv, an international leadership consultancy company, and author of GETTING TO “YES, AND”: The Art of Business Improv (Stanford Business Books; January 24, 2017).

Bob Kulhan

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Bob Kulhan is President, CEO, and Founder of Business Improv, an innovative consultancy that specializes in experiential learning and serves an international roster of blue-chip firms, and author of GETTING TO “YES, AND”: The Art of Business Improv (Stanford Business Books; January 24, 2017).

He is also an Adjunct Professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and Columbia Business School. A performer with over 20 years of stage credits, he has trained with a long list of legendary talents, including Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. An actor and former core faculty member in Chicago’s famed Second City and a member of the resident company at the iO Theater, Kulhan is a co-founder of the critically acclaimed Baby Wants Candy improv troupe. His work has been featured by such outlets as Big Think, CNN, Entrepreneur, Cheddar, Fast Company, Yahoo Finance, the Financial Times, NPR, Slate, and the Wall Street Journal.
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