The comedy of leadership

I’ve had a couple of interesting evenings watching live comedy shows recently and saw what I thought were interesting parallels between the world of comedic performance and leadership – often also a performance. Now, I am sure we all have seen some examples of leadership that are laughable, but that’s not quite what I mean.

The first show was at the Comedy Store in London and featured an evening of improvisation. I love improv – I like the spontaneity and the originality you get from creating in the moment from what is around you. We use improv in our leadership coach training because, however well a leader plans, events change and so the need to react in the moment is a key skill. And we know that humour, pitched at the right level and at the right time, can be really supportive for teams, and is a key element of emotional intelligence.

The Comedy Store Players take ideas from the audience on places or situations or roles or anything that will support them in creating an amusing scenario. They play with the audience, sometimes with rudeness, sometimes with humour, judging in the moment which will have the best outcome. I never saw them being cruel to the audience; they see and engage the audience as part of their team. The success of the evening is due to a blend of the talents and experience on the stage, whilst also taking vital input from the audience – a good way to run any team.

The second show was a classic evening of stand-up comedy with four acts and a compere. I’d gone with my wife, Helen, thinking it would be a fun evening. The compere started the evening, ”warming up” the audience to prepare us for the first act. Bless him, he tried hard, but seemed to lack two skills. Firstly, his timing was just not quite right, and secondly the interaction with the audience was both formulaic and also passive. By that I mean he set the audience up to deliver an essential background to his act, without involving them, consulting them, or trying to play to their strengths. A familiar storyline of poor leadership.

He handed over to the first act, who pitched for the audiences sympathy and then spent the rest of his time dragging out a few tired and stale stories which to me seemed like a rehash of old material, neither funny nor original. 5 minutes into the second act, which, to be fair, was mildly, if only briefly, entertaining we realised we could find more entertainment in each other’s company with a glass of wine in the bar.

We came back for the fourth act, Bill Bailey, the real reason we were at the gig in the first place. The formula was the same – he had a routine he’d been working on, but the delivery and the interaction with the audience were on a different level. The comedy was intelligent and funny, his timing was great, and he showed respect for the audience, using their heckling to create more humour. So a blend of prepared and improv gave this act the edge.

I’m sure by now you have seen the parallels that I saw here for leadership. Here’s some guidance I once read for improv actors:-

The successful ‘improv’ players bag of tricks includes:-
• listening to others without prejudgment
• accepting what is offered by others
• trusting that the group will solve a problem together
• letting go of one’s own needs to control situations or predetermine outcomes

Imagine working for a leader who embodied those principles – imagine being that leader.

In summary then, the successful leader treats their team with respect; consults and involves the team; creates solutions in the moment from all the resources around them, including the team; uses humour to good effect; delivers a great performance.

Oh, and knows when to cut their losses and go to the bar.