Thought Leadership

“Yes, And…”: How Improv Teaches Us to Lead

December 7, 2023 | Brown & Brown Insurance | Thought Leadership

“Yes, And…”: How Improv Teaches Us to Lead
by Julie Turpin, Chief People Officer at Brown & Brown Insurance

If you’ve ever watched an improv comedy performance, you’ve witnessed the “Yes, and…” philosophy of the genre, maybe without knowing it and its purpose.

One improviser says “Yes, and…” and the next one expands on the concept of the last improviser.

For example, one performer starts by saying, “Wow, this submarine is getting really cramped,” and the second performer might reply, “Yes, and it’s because you brought all those dogs on board.” And the scene unfolds.

I attended an improv retreat for leaders in Maine in September and found that the cornerstones of improv, like the “Yes, and…” practice, correlated quite spectacularly to leadership and life.

Once, in the middle of a high-stakes presentation, clad in a sleek headset and completely unaware of the subtle percussion one of my earrings was creating against the audio equipment, a colleague nicely whispered, “Julie, your earring is making quite a bit of noise. Can I take it?”

I quickly removed the earring, chuckled to the audience and acknowledged the situation with, “I guess I’m pioneering a new trend in public speaking with this look.” It was a “Yes, and…” moment that not only diffused the situation but opened a window into audience appeal.

Here’s what I learned that day: Leadership is not about being perfect but being human.

Embracing the uncomfortable, the unforeseen and the unscripted is not just a practical skill for moments on stage but for building inner strength, fostering trust in oneself and learning to lead with words and by example.

3 leadership lessons from improv

There are many ways to be a leader and resources for developing the skills that will help you be one.

My best advice is to keep an open mind to where you’ll find these learning moments. Did I think an improv retreat would be one of my most impactful leadership learning experiences? No, but by being open to new experiences and challenges, I added the following key lessons to my leadership playbook:

1) Embracing discomfort can lead to creativity and confidence.

In the world of improv, the unexpected is the canvas for creativity. It’s not just about quick thinking but embracing discomfort, stepping beyond the obvious and diving into the unconventional. This is where we find true growth.

In the workshop, our instructor challenged us with a duo performance, playing off everyone’s discomfort and fear of looking like a fool. My partner and I were tasked with acting out a dialogue called “Touch Me.” We were handed a script, and the goal was to perform the words on the page using our imagination. Without the ability to deviate from the words, we had to engage in non-verbal actions to improvise and make it ours. We grappled with how to tackle the script and eventually decided to embrace the silly. I was to play a dog and crawl around on the floor in my fancy clothes. Waiting for our turn (we were last), I began to panic as our performance got closer, trying to come up with any excuse to avoid embarrassing myself. But in the end, we were a huge hit, and the creative confidence I gained from the performance was truly profound.

The easy route is always going to be evading the uncomfortable. At work, this could be shying away from tough conversations and situations that challenge us. But leadership is learning to confront this discomfort head-on, learning how to have critical conversations or volunteer for opportunities that challenge us.

2) Trust in yourself and be curious.

The opposites of curiosity are complacency and mediocrity. Those who choose comfort over curiosity risk being passed by those eager to step into their discomfort zones. It’s the desire to explore and be better than yesterday that shakes the foundations of our comfort and propels us forward.

In improv, you must trust yourself to believe in your ability to adapt and respond without drowning in negative self-talk. It isn’t just about survival but about showcasing the best version of yourself. As those of us at the workshop witnessed this in each other, we also forged relationships through our shared discomfort and bravery.

Leadership, too, finds its roots in embracing the unknown and trusting in one’s adaptability. Curiosity drives us to understand the diverse needs and motivations of our teams and seek solutions.

3) Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.

The idea that repetition helps you perfect a skill is nothing new. Think about a basketball player practicing his free throw over and over again until he doesn’t miss. What I learned in improv is that the goal of repetition doesn’t have to be perfection but embracing the journey of consistently showing up. You find this same idea in yoga and meditation, where the goal is developing a mindset and more profound practice.

“Strike a pose” was a memorable exercise that pushed us to think outside the box during repetition. It wasn’t about getting good at one standard response but about unleashing creativity in unexpected ways. The exercise highlighted how infrequently we practice creativity while emphasizing the importance of cultivating this skill.

The lesson here for leadership is that each moment and each challenge is an opportunity for creativity and growth. It’s not just about reaching a goal; it’s about continuously evolving through consistent practice, allowing this process to shape us into better leaders and human beings.

While not all of you are going to sign up for an improv retreat after reading this — although I hope you do — I challenge each of us to move forward in our leadership with the open mind and curiosity of improvers.

The next time we face a challenge, a hiccup or an uncomfortable situation, let us respond not with fear or avoidance but with a “Yes, and…” Acknowledge the situation, embrace it and move through it creatively.


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by Julie Turpin, Chief People Officer at Brown & Brown Insurance

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