As a business owner, one of the best ways to invest in yourself is to develop your leadership skills. It’s one of those areas we continue to grow in throughout our lives and are never truly done learning. Leadership is about so much more than just understanding how to do certain things. It involves your emotional intelligence, your teaching ability, and even your character, which is constantly changing. That’s why one of the best resources for growing as a leader is coaching.
Now, I’ve done a significant amount of coaching in my career, and I’ve been both a mentor and a mentee. I can personally vouch for the value and effectiveness of a great business coach and have had a number who have helped me significantly in my own business. However, the most valuable type of coaching I’ve ever had as an entrepreneur was not in business, but in acting. Some of the best business and leadership skills I’ve learned came from an improv class.
You might not think of acting as a skill that you need, but it’s one of the best skills you can have as a business owner. If you’re looking to up your leadership game, before you start searching for a business coach, see if your community has a local improv group or class you can join. Learning to act can help you in all sorts of situations both in business and in life, and improv is the best type of acting to learn, because life isn’t scripted.
Learning to think on your toes and come up with quick, funny responses can improve your wit. It develops your sense of humor and even your personality, which is fundamental to your leadership skills. The ability to keep a strong sense of humor about life is valuable in a leader, because the tone you set will change the way your team members act and feel. Having a good sense of humor can make you someone who is more fun to be around and help you stay relaxed even during stressful situations.
The value of strong wit goes beyond just humor, however. It’s also about your ability to make good judgements and quick decisions and have confidence in yourself. These are invaluable as a business leader, when you’re often faced with difficult decisions or crises in which a solution has to be identified quickly.
Improv is also about problem solving. It’s almost perfect practice for leadership: someone throws a prompt at you, and you have to respond. It teaches you to think and adapt quickly as the scene—or situation—changes.
One of the best exercises taught in improv is one you’ve possibly done before. Did you ever take an acting class in high school? If so, do you remember doing a group exercise where you’d build a scene with the rule that every line must begin with “Yes, and . . .” The idea is to never shut down an idea and to keep the scene going as long as possible or until it’s natural conclusion. When one of the actors stumbles or hesitates and isn’t able to come up with a response, they’re swapped out for another actor.
The scene might start out fairly normal, but it usually quickly devolves into hilarity. However, good improv actors can carry the scene for quite a while, playing off each other’s lines and ideas. The more you practice it, the easier it becomes to think of responses that make sense, further develop the scene, or that are simply hilarious.
Not only is improv a lot of fun, but learning to think on your toes and quickly adapt to situations is powerful when transferred into your business. It allows you to become more willing to take risks and helps you better weather failure.
The power of the “Yes, and” exercise is that it shows you how to roll with the punches. Sometimes your acting partner throws you a curveball, and it’s up to you to figure out what to do with it. The more you practice and the better you get, the more confident you’ll become in responding and exploring new ideas.
Let’s think about how this applies to business. Chances are you have experienced life throwing you some kind of curveball that forces you to change direction, however dramatically or minutely, within your career. Maybe it was something as large as the pandemic shutting down your business or something as small as a project not going the way you planned. These are inevitable parts of the life of an entrepreneur, and the better we’re able to adapt, to say, “Yes, and” in order to keep moving forward, the more success we’ll have in the long run.
I sometimes say that failure is the ultimate currency of entrepreneurs, because failure is how we learn. You have to try many wrong doors before you can find the right one, because the chances of finding the right one and having success on your first try are next to zero. But what determines how quickly you’ll find success is how you learn from your failures and adapt your strategy or direction to fit.
The more you practice improv, the more confident you will be to handle failure or any unexpected situation, because you know that no matter what happens, you’ll find a way to adapt and recover from it. You’ll make decisions with more confidence and prioritize action over hesitation.
When I say to go out and find an improv coach or local group, I mean it. The value of acting is more than theoretical—it takes practice to develop the skill. If you do it week after week and remain committed to learning, the skills you will gain through improv can help you become a better leader and become more successful at anything you want to do in life.