Leadership & Management

Class Takeaways — Spontaneous Management

Five lessons in five minutes: Professor Christian Wheeler demonstrates how improvisational theater can help you stay present and lead in the moment.

June 16, 2022

| by Kelsey Doyle

How do you face a challenge you weren’t expecting? How can you be present and truly lead in the moment? When you learn to let go of preconceived notions and expectations, you can be fully present and respond to what the moment gives you, says Stanford Graduate School of Business professor of marketing Christian Wheeler.

In his class Spontaneous Management, Wheeler teaches how various aspects of theater, especially those practiced in improv, can help managers get more comfortable leading “off script.”

Full Transcript

Christian Wheeler: Hi, I’m Christian Wheeler. I teach a lot of courses on the topic of leadership agility at Stanford GSB, and these are five takeaways from my course, Spontaneous Management.

The Risk of Fearing Failure

In Silicon Valley a lot of companies have the motto of failing fast failing frequently, but on a personal level it can be difficult for us to accept failure. We often have a fear of looking stupid in front of other people or making mistakes, but an out-sized fear of failure has negative consequences for us as leaders. A fear of failure can make you avoid growth situations and it’s only when we are at the outer edge of our limits, when we are encountering that failure possibility that we are operating at the peak of our abilities. Failure is a step on the path to learning.

Be Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

Secondly, dwelling on failure takes you out of the situation so you can’t respond adaptively to what the context gives you. We have a motto in the class to be comfortable being uncomfortable. You will feel anxious in a lot of situations, but if you can learn to ease into that feeling without dwelling on it, you can respond most adaptively in any context. Human beings communicate through a wide array of channels and only one of them is the verbal channel, the words that people say. Most in-person communication happens through non-verbal signals. It is through these signals that we get the layers of meaning, people’s unstated beliefs, their comfort level, their emotions, their status, and it’s critical for us as leaders to learn how to interpret these nonverbal signals. But it’s also important for us to understand that we are always giving off these nonverbal signals, whether or not we intend to in our class, we teach you how to broaden your range much like an actor might learn to play different roles so that you can recruit the non-verbal behaviors that are most adaptive to you in any given context.

Storytelling Helps Us Connect

Improvisational theater is a foundation of this class, and improvisational theater is all about storytelling. Practically since the dawn of language human beings have been telling one another stories. And the narrative structure is a structure through which we give context and even our own lives a sense of meaning, purpose and journey. Stories are emotional, they allow the listener to develop an empathetic response to the protagonist. And research shows that stories can be more compelling than rhetoric and more as well. You may not think of yourself as a skilled storyteller, but you can learn these techniques. Stories have a typical structure and compelling stories have common elements that can be taught. If you can learn to turn your facts into stories, you can develop a deep and enduring connection with your audience.

Saying Yes and Letting Go

If you’ve read anything about improv you know the first rule of improv is yes and. The yes component means that we are taking somebody’s input and incorporating it, and the and means that we are building specifically on that idea. And it is through this process that an improv company can take a simple suggestion like a relationship between two people and end up with a fully creative dramatic, full length, 90 minute play. It is through incorporating others ideas and building on them that you can end up in creative places that you never anticipated. Many of us are resistant to yes and type of thinking, because we want to contain the situation, we want to have a sense of control over the direction that it goes in, but when we can learn to cede some of that control to incorporate and build on others’ ideas, we can generate breakthrough, innovative creative solutions.

Being Spontaneous and Being Present

When you learn to embrace spontaneity, to relax into the moment, to be comfortable being uncomfortable, you can be authentic and present in the moment. When you learn to let go of preconceived notions you have about yourself, to let go of expectations about others and the context. Then you can be fully present and adaptively respond to what the moment gives you. This allows you to attend to unspoken things. It allows you to be responsive to ideas in your environment, to see connections between ideas that others overlook. It allows you to interact deeply and authentically to build rapport and achieve your goals.

Yeah, you can’t be an improviser unless you are willing to look like a complete idiot in front of people on an unpredictable schedule.

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