From failure to success: Using improvisation to develop leadership – Daena Giardella

Daena Giardella, MIT Sloan Lecturer

Business schools prepare students to succeed.  Two courses that I teach at MIT’s Sloan School of Management take an unusual approach to this goal. I teach students how to fail—so that they may find brilliant success in the future.

No textbooks are required for these classes – “Improvisational Leadership: In the Moment Leadership Skills,” which I have taught for the past three years as an elective course, and “Improvisation, Adaptability and Influence: An Experiential Leadership Lab,” which I have taught for the past seven years as a two-day SIP workshop. Students don’t have to spend hours at the library or sit through long lectures. But they do have to do something that for most of them is far more challenging. They have to confront their fear of failure.

When we fear making a mistake or looking foolish, we are reluctant to take risks or to try new things. We are less spontaneous and authentic. Our ability to listen with care and awareness diminishes when we are worried about “getting it right.” Since failure is inevitable in all human endeavors, it is important for future business leaders to learn to face the fear of failure and then to discover how to turn failure into success.

Improvisation is the art of the unexpected.  It teaches us how to take risks and to respond confidently in the moment to whatever happens. The improviser develops a mindset that  includes curiosity, high stakes listening, flexibility, and the desire to build strong relationships. Resilience is key.

In my class, students learn and practice the basic skills of improvisation through a variety of highly experiential exercises. These exercises cultivate freedom, creativity and collaboration.

We also do many simulations. I assign students roles and ask them to improvise scenes that happen every day in the world of business. In one scene, a leader must tell members of a team about upcoming budget or personnel cuts. In another, employees struggle over what to do about a manager who doesn’t answer emails. And in another, a charged conflict arises when a team member is chronically late completing projects.

These are uncomfortable situations with no easy resolutions. For those involved in these dramas—both in class and in real life—the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing can be paralyzing. Being in the moment is crucial to overcoming this fear. Students improvising these scenes have to learn to think on their feet and to trust their intuition.

If my students are having trouble with a scene, I sometimes ask them to give a stream of consciousness monologue, saying whatever comes to mind, as they give voice to their many internal thoughts, feelings, and impulses. Then they return to the scene with new insights and choices. Other times, I’ll have two students argue opposite sides of an issue, then, in the middle of the debate, switch sides. This develops empathy and understanding for the other person’s perspective, which is essential in influence.

I stress to my students that what they do after a mistake is more important than the mistake itself. I coach them to use the skills of improvisation to transform an uncomfortable moment into a springboard to the next moment. It’s a chance to turn a flub or an awkward interaction into an experience of greater clarity and connection. Using humor can be an effective approach. Often the best move is simply to admit the mistake. Authentic expression always leads to stronger relationships.

It is no coincidence that those who have achieved great success in business almost always experienced earlier failures. The key to finding success is not in avoiding failure but in learning from it. Anyone who hopes to succeed in business must learn to rebound. After a missed opportunity, one needs to regain composure and pivot—then make a new moment.

Daena Giardella is a Lecturer at MIT Sloan as well as a Leadership Coach, Organizational Consultant, Professional Actor, and Director.

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