Yes, And! Using Improv to Develop Leadership Skills


The sport of Tooth Brushing was recently added to the Olympics!  Don’t believe us?  Well, you are correct, the sport is not recognized officially by the International Olympic Committee.  But don’t tell that to Leadership Wisconsin Group XVII.  At their Foundational Seminar in Osseo this last August they held a Tooth Brushing competition complete with brush-by-brush commentary.   As you might expect the event resulted in a good deal of laughter.

This was one of many improv skits Group XVII engaged in to develop their leadership skills.  Catherine Emmanuelle, Global Citizen, UW-Extension Trempealeau Family Living Educator and Eau Claire City Council Member, led the group through an evening of laughter and learning.  Catherine is herself a student of improv and has found the lessons learned apply to leadership roles ranging from mother to councilwoman.  She shared personal stories of how the concept of “yes, and” has helped her to build bridges and create change for her community.

According to Catherine, the rules of improv are simple: (1) Yes, and…, (2) Listen, (3) Find agreement and work as partners, (4) Be authentic, (5) Re-think your assumptions, and (6) Bring your best game.  One member of the group observed that “the collaborative process can be uncomfortable and unpredictable, yet rewarding and fun”.  Improv is definitely a lesson in collaboration.  You have a common goal, yet there is not script to use, just the rules of improv to guide you.  So when your improv partner invites you to have a picnic on the moon you say “yes, and I think it would be lovely if we brought salmon quiche to share”.

What does this look like in real life?  As another member of the group reflected, “it doesn’t mean you accept reality 100% without modification/exceptions/improvements”.  In other words, as a leader you don’t have to be in complete agreement with those you are collaborating with.  What is important is that you find a way to avoiding saying no and seek out creative alternatives that build upon what others have brought to the table.  For example, if you are a member of city council and another council member says we should build a community sports center, you recognize that your constituent’s concerns about the quality of the local school’s basketball courts and soccer fields provide an interesting opportunity.  You say “yes, and…”.  “Yes, let’s look at the idea of a community sports center, and see how we might accomplish this in a way that addresses the aging sports facilities at the high school.”  One might call that a Win-Win approach to leadership.

For Group XVII the improv session did more than teach them lessons in leadership.  It also helped them build trust and team comradery during the first seminar of their two-year leadership journey.  During the 2 ½ days they spent together at the Foster Retreat Center, they learned about one another’s personality types, explored their personal values, uncovered who they are as leaders, and practiced the skill of asking powerful questions.  Each of them left with a better understanding of themselves and their learning cohort.

Improv Resource (provided by Catherine Emmanuelle)

  • Agusto, B. (1992). Games for actors and non-actors (2nd ed). New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, ad civic courage. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
  • Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to transgress. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Halpern, C., Clost, D., & Johnson, K. “H.” (1994). Truth in comedy: The manual of improvisation. Colorado Springs, CO: Meriwether.
  • Johnson, K. (1979). Impro: Improvisation and the theatre. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Rohd, M. (1998). Theatre for community, conflict & dialogue. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Scruggs, M. & Gellman, M.J. (2008). Process: An improver’s journey. Evanston, IL: Northwestern.
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