How Leaders Can Learn Through Improv

(The following excerpt is from a white paper written by Kip Kelly, director of marketing and business development at UNC Executive Development.)

Developing these unique capabilities often requires a different approach to leadership development and is prompting some senior executives to embrace less conventional approaches. This is where improvisation—the art of performing without a script—can help.

Improvisation can be funny—think Wayne Brady, Tina Fey or Amy Poehler—but that is not necessarily the goal. Improv is about working off the top of your head, being mindful and reacting to those around you, and being entirely in the moment. It is also about honesty. It teaches people how to react, adapt and communicate openly and honestly with each other, skills that readily translate into the workplace.

Improvisation may be unscripted, but that doesn’t mean that it is without rules. These rules serve as guidelines for participants, and while seemingly simple on the surface, are more challenging in actual practice. Tina Fey, writer, actor, and alumni of Chicago’s famed Second City and Saturday Night Live, outlined her rules for improv in her book, Bossypants. Her rules can be readily applied toward building better leaders in the workplace. Tina Fey’s rules for improvisation:

Rule #1: Agree and say “yes”

Saying “yes” means the listener is open to new ideas and perspectives. It establishes recognition and respect for the person speaking. It sets the stage for positive communication and real dialogue. It is positive, affirmative, confident and optimistic. Saying “yes” can help turn around a negative organizational culture, spur creativity, foster innovation, and improve collaboration and teamwork.

Rule #2: Not only say “yes”, say “yes, AND” “Yes, and” builds on what was said. In the workplace, it allows employees to take ideas and build on them to create something new. “Yes, and” can be used to brainstorm, problem solve, and resolve conflicts. It can also foster collaboration because it requires active listening and acceptance of different points of view. It builds rather than tear down, which can allow for more honest and effective interactions.

Rule #3: Make statements Constant questioners slow things down—and frankly, time is of the essence in business. This rule prompts employees to be a part of the solution rather than exacerbating the problem. Making statements helps set direction and gives the conversation a roadmap that all participants can follow.

Rule #4: There are no mistakes, only opportunities

This rule is about accepting and moving on—not looking back to place blame. Pouring over past mistakes and casting blame wastes valuable time and can lead to an overly cautious organizational culture where employees are afraid to make mistakes and take chances. Good leaders take responsibility, learn from mistakes and move on. These rules can get organizations started in the art of improvisation—but keep in mind that like any art form, mastering improv takes time and practice. Business leaders are increasingly finding that taking the time and supporting the practice is worth the investment. McDonald’s, the United Way, U.S. Cellular, Nike, Kraft, Starbucks, and R.J. Reynolds are just a few corporations that have used improvisation in their leadership development programs at one time or another.


Business leaders need to be outstanding communicators, innovators, decision makers, change agents and critical thinkers. They must be able to handle ambiguity, to promote teamwork and collaboration, and to be the best coach and mentor they can be. It is a tall order. Improv can offer a safe, creative atmosphere for business leaders to develop these skills. (

Editor's Note: This post was originally featured on the UNC Kenan-Flagler Insights blog.)