University of Wisconsin–Madison
Dark brick wall background with the words Leadership Improv, written in neon, Presented by UW-IT Connects

Think on your feet—and have fun—with Leadership Improv

The scene: Half the class leaves the room to wait in the hall, while the other half remains in the Union South meeting room to cook up a story. A few minutes later, those waiting in the hallway return, pairing up with one of the story creators.

Their task: Ask a series of yes-or-no questions to attempt to sleuth out “the story” their partners created.

But here’s the twist: The group that was supposed to make up a story didn’t actually do it. Instead, they were told to answer their inquisitors’ questions arbitrarily, in a “no-yes-no-no-yes” pattern.

Tethered only by the stretchy bungee cords of imagination, the stories deduced by the question-askers bounced wildly, in every direction:

  • One participant concluded that Jonathan Taylor wins the Heisman (ouch – that one still hurts)
  • Another concocted a perplexing desert scene, in which people were hungry and yet had ample access to food and water
  • Yet another story woven: a gerbil fell asleep in his cage, but somehow got all twisted up

The divergent conjectures reached in this seemingly goofy “Leadership Improv” exercise illustrate a decidedly serious point:

“If you leave blanks in your story – and in your communication overall – people are going to fill in the void with whatever twisted gerbil they have in mind,” explained Jason Erdmann, facilitator of the exercise.

“It’s amazing how fast you can build those stories, all in your mind, with limited input.”

“And I don’t know about you,” Erdmann added. “But my brain goes to five different places, with each scenario crazier than the last.”

As the “Automatic Storytelling” game illustrates, there’s a big connection between improvisational skills, nimble and effective leadership, and managing teams through change.

And that’s the premise behind Leadership Improv—a monthly program that offers the opportunity to learn and practice leadership skill through improvisational comedy exercises and skits, designed to help you get comfortable with skills to help you tackle everyday difficult situations in the workplace.

Leadership Improv is intended to build on the curriculum and concepts shared in the Information Technology Leadership Program (ITLP), but the monthly sessions at Union South are open to all – not just IT professionals.

At the December session, for example, participants included a couple of students who admitted they “should really be studying for finals.”

“We welcome everyone who wants to participate and come and have some fun with us,” said Erdmann, a senior IT consultant with the School of Education. Erdmann co-chairs Leadership Improv with Amanda Thornton, senior information processing consultant with the Space Science and Engineering Center, and Sean Bossinger, IT director for the School of Veterinary Medicine.

The improv series is part of UW IT Connects, a suite of networking, leadership, and learning and development offerings available to IT professionals and others across campus.

The sessions begin with simple warm-up exercises designed to take participants out of their inboxes, deadlines and meeting schedules and into the present moment.

Sometimes the games begin with give-and-take exercises like “Pass the Clap,” in which one player starts by throwing a hand clap to their neighbor, who then passes it on, and around the circle. Other warm-ups include verbal gymnastics that require you to think fast to keep a pattern going.

No matter the game, they’re all played with tongue-in-cheek Vegas Rules: “What happens at Leadership Improv stays at Leadership Improv.”

“Both leadership and improv are scary things,” Erdmann explains. “But if you mess up here, the worst thing that’s going to happen is a golf clap.”

The frequent laughter at Leadership Improv often betrays the no-nonsense leadership competencies reinforced through each game. But every activity has a lesson – even a game in which participants stand in a circle and tell a story by taking turns contributing a single word at a time.  

“Each person gives the next person something to build on – even if that ‘gift’ doesn’t work well with what you were already planning to say in your head,” Erdmann explains. “It forces you to respond in the moment, on your feet. And that’s not always the most comfortable thing – think about the last time you had to deal with the element of surprise in a meeting.”

“At Leadership Improv, you can practice doing that,” Erdmann added. “And, you can do it in a comfortable environment.”

That’s exactly what draws Salima Currimbhoy to Leadership Improv. A data and metrics specialist with the Division of Information Technology and self-described “natural introvert,” Currimbhoy has participated in the group off and on for about 5 years.

“As I’ve grown within DoIT and my role has shifted from less visible roles behind a desk, I’ve needed to build skills we practice at Leadership Improv – like being able to answer impromptu questions at any given time,” Currimbhoy said.

“If you’re interested in getting comfortable in that space when it’s not a natural place for you to be in, Leadership Improv is a non-judgmental place to try it out.”

Attend the next Leadership Improv

Fri Jan 31: 12:00pm, Union South (check TITU for meeting room)


Contact the Leadership Improv co-chairs: