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Robert Kirby

People People

Rob Kirby | Founder of People People | Executive Coach | Facilitator | Speaker

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Playtime for Leaders


As an actor, one of the most important skills you can learn is improvisation. By learning to think on your feet and roll with the punches, actors bring characters to life and keep a scene fresh. However, the benefits of improvisational techniques are not limited to the realm of acting. Strategic improvisation can also be highly advantageous for leaders in business settings. In this article, we will explore how embracing the spirit of play, derived from acting, can help leaders become more successful in their roles.

The Power of Play

Play is an inherent part of being human, ingrained in our DNA. Children instinctively know how to play without being taught because it is a natural ability that emerges from within. When actors engage in play, they tap into something greater than themselves—a universal source of creativity and wisdom that allows them to access their deepest emotions and creative potential. In other words, playing as an actor enables full presence in the moment and the ability to trust instincts rather than overthinking or worrying about the outcome.

Research by Sutherland et al. (2021) supports the notion that embracing playfulness and improvisation can enhance leadership effectiveness. The study found that leaders who exhibited a playful and spontaneous approach were perceived as more innovative, adaptable, and open to change by their subordinates. This research underscores the value of incorporating improvisational techniques into leadership practices.

Creative Problem Solving

By embracing improvisational techniques such as playfulness and spontaneity, leaders in business settings can unlock their own creative problem-solving abilities. Instead of relying solely on pre-existing solutions or strategies that may not be effective in the current situation, improvisation empowers leaders to develop innovative approaches to problems and generate new ideas quickly. This type of creative problem solving is invaluable for any leader, as it enables them to stay ahead of the competition by rapidly adapting and implementing strategies that outpace rivals.

A study conducted by Goncalo and Duguid (2012) highlights the benefits of improvisational approaches to problem solving. The researchers found that improvisational teams, compared to teams following predetermined plans, generated more creative and effective solutions. These findings emphasize the importance of embracing improvisation in fostering a culture of innovation and adaptability within organizations.

Leaders Becoming Learners Again

Embracing improvisational techniques also helps leaders regain their ability to be learners— an essential trait for staying ahead and remaining relevant in today's fast-paced world. By letting go of expectations and preconceived notions about a situation or task, and instead embracing curiosity through spontaneous exploration, leaders gain insights into different perspectives they may not have previously considered. This openness to new ideas and perspectives brings them closer to achieving success in their endeavours.

Research by Carmeli et al. (2015) supports the idea that leaders who cultivate a learner mindset enhance their personal growth and adaptability. The study found that leaders who exhibited a learning orientation were more likely to engage in proactive behaviours, embrace change, and foster innovation within their teams. This research emphasizes the importance of adopting a learner mindset and supports the notion that improvisation can facilitate this shift in leadership approach.

Practical Tips for Embracing Improvisation in Leadership:

Embrace Playfulness: Encourage a playful atmosphere within your team or organization. Create opportunities for spontaneous and creative activities that foster a sense of fun and exploration. This can include team-building exercises, brainstorming sessions, or designated "play" time during meetings.

Foster a Culture of Psychological Safety: Improvisation requires individuals to take risks and step out of their comfort zones. Create an environment where team members feel safe to share ideas, take initiative, and make mistakes without fear of judgment or negative repercussions. This encourages a culture of experimentation and innovation.

Embrace Uncertainty: Develop comfort with ambiguity and embrace the unknown. Encourage your team to approach challenges with a mindset of curiosity and exploration rather than seeking immediate certainty. This allows for flexibility and adaptability when unexpected situations arise.

Practice Active Listening: Improvisation relies heavily on listening and building upon the contributions of others. Cultivate active listening skills by genuinely engaging with your team members' ideas, perspectives, and feedback. This promotes collaboration, trust, and the generation of innovative solutions.

Encourage Flexibility and Adaptability: Foster a mindset that values flexibility and adaptability. Encourage your team to embrace change, pivot when necessary, and view obstacles as opportunities for creative problem-solving. This mindset allows for quick thinking and the ability to adjust strategies in response to evolving circumstances.

Embody a Growth Mindset: Lead by example and embody a growth mindset—a belief that skills and abilities can be developed through dedication and effort. Encourage continuous learning and personal growth within your team, emphasizing the value of learning from mistakes and viewing setbacks as opportunities for growth.

Practice Spontaneity and Trust Your Instincts: Challenge yourself to make quick decisions in certain situations, trusting your instincts and intuition. This helps develop the ability to think on your feet and respond effectively to unforeseen challenges.

Engage in Improv Training or Workshops: Consider participating in improvisational training or workshops designed for business professionals. These sessions provide practical exercises and techniques to enhance your improvisational skills and foster a more playful and creative approach to leadership.

By incorporating these practical tips into your leadership practices, you can tap into the power of improvisation, fostering innovation, adaptability, and growth within yourself and your team. Embracing the spirit of play in a business context allows for a more dynamic and effective leadership style, better equipped to navigate the complexities of today's ever-changing world.

Author Profile Picture
Robert Kirby

Rob Kirby | Founder of People People | Executive Coach | Facilitator | Speaker

Read more from Robert Kirby

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