Great leaders never stop learning. Sometimes, that learning happens in unconventional settings. Improv, a theatrical technique in which actors create skits based on cues from the audience and each other, parallels corporate life in more ways than meets the eye. Leadership doesn’t come with a script, leaving executives, managers and employees alike to react to “cues” from one another, as well as from their respective industry audiences — i.e., clients, shareholders, etc.

Jimmy Carrane is a comedian, performer and improvisation instructor whose Art of Slow Comedy course was named one of Chicago Magazine’s top comedy classes in 2015. He works not only with actors and other on-stage performers, but also with corporate professionals looking to sharpen their leadership skills.

What Lessons Can Leaders Learn from Improv Instruction?

As Jimmy explains, there are no mistakes in improv. There are, however, a few basic rules that form the foundation for improv; these translate into lessons that leaders can take back to the office:

Listen — Good listening is essential in order to succeed in improv, just as it is in leadership. Everything that each participant contributes to an improv experience is based on a prompt from another participant in the group or the audience. Listening is fundamental to this process.

Collaborate — The “Yes, and …” improv concept is one of the most effective ways to teach people how to work together, according to Jimmy. When you use the concept of “yes, and…”, participants have to accept their partner’s ideas and build upon them. Whatever one person says or does, it’s up to their partner to make them look good.

leadership lessons from improv

If one person asks, “How’s your dog?, their partner has to craft a response based on the pretense of having a dog: “Oh, Buffy — well, we had to take Buffy to the vet last week, but she’s doing much better now.” Their partner might respond with a comment about driving past the vet’s office this morning, and the scene would continue. When leaders replicate this approach in the workplace, they ensure team members that all ideas will be accepted and considered. Great things can transpire when people put their minds together.

Be flexible — Ideas have room to breathe and grow in an environment encouraged by a flexible leader. Whereas a leader with a rigid mindset might be quick to shut down new ideas with a negative response — e.g., “That will never work,” or “We’ve always done it this way,” — a leader who says, “I’m willing to consider that option,” will keep the door open to progress. As Jimmy points out, “Innovation takes place in companies that foster that type of creativity, initiative and vision.”

Take risks — There are no bad ideas in improv; working in groups creates trust and builds support, which encourages participants to be open in expressing their ideas. Likewise, a good leader creates an atmosphere where team members aren’t afraid that their input will be judged.

As Jimmy explains: “If your team is working on a solution to a client problem, it’s better to have more ideas on the table than to have fewer ideas. If you’re conducting a brainstorming session, get people to offer as many ideas as possible; the goal is not to negate or disagree with any of them, but rather to take the pieces that you like from each to arrive at a solution that makes the most sense.”

Jimmy occasionally works one-on-one with leaders seeking to improve their presentation skills and spontaneity. But because improv workshops involve experiential learning based on team interaction, he finds that the most valuable lessons are the ones that take place in a group setting.

Jimmy Carrane improv


About Jimmy Carrane

Jimmy Carrane is co-author of Improvising Better: A Guide to the Working Improviser and host of the podcast Improv Nerd. He has taught improv for more than 30 years at the Second City, iO, and The Annoyance as well as his own classes called The Art of Slow Comedy. Jimmy has conducted improv-based workshops for many corporations including Abbott Labs, BP Amoco, Booz Allen Hamilton, Deloitte & Touche, Motorola, Steelcase and more. For more information about Jimmy, please visit