Creative Leadership – Lessons from Theatre Directors

Creative Leadership – Lessons from Theatre Directors

This is the first of two blogs to accompany the latest 4D podcast on creative leadership which you can listen to here.


The pace of change today is as slow as it will ever be. The world of work is changing rapidly; creativity, collaboration and communication are becoming ever more important qualities that we look for in our teams. This may mean leading and working together in different ways. How might leaders respond and what models are there for us to draw upon from other fields?


The business world can learn a great deal about how to lead creative teams from the work of theatre directors. Over the last 18 months I have held interviews with theatre directors Sarah Esdaile, Natasha Rickman, Liz Stevenson, Sue Dunderdaleand Giles Havergal – all superb theatre directors at different stages in their careers.


From these conversations and building on my own knowledge and experience of both worlds, there are 8 Principles that hold true for leading teams of actors and also have great relevance in other fields. The first four are here and the second four will follow in a blog later this month Enjoy!



1. Leading, Not Controlling


Sarah Esdaile: “The misconception is that you are a puppeteer. That you are a controlling choreographer, and everyone sits and nods and writes down what you say and does it! Actually, the political complexity of leading and inspiring and collaborating is not what people think it is – they think it’s about ruling with an iron fist and asserting and controlling and it’s far more nuanced than that. It’s about empowering people to do their best work, making people want to do their best work and making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.”


The best directors create an environment where each member of their team is working hard and able to express themselves, experiment and takes risks. This enables the director, rather than simply imposing their will, to edit from the work created in the room with the actors.


That requires a deep level of confidence as a leader – to ask a team to trust you to lead them even though you can’t be sure exactly where you’ll end up, or the route you’ll take!


Similarly in business, as Daniel Pink argues, the key drivers of motivation are Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. If we micro-manage people, preventing them from owning the ways they will achieve their objectives, we stifle their ambition and energy. Simply telling them what to do or how WE would do it teaches them little about how they might approach a similar problem in future. It also stifles purpose – reducing what might have been a successful team endeavour into what could look like simply a way to make the boss look great.


However actors, like employees in other fields, often seek specific instructions from the leader on how to approach a challenge or solve a problem (in acting perhaps, how to say the line or where to move). If they are given the answer they are ‘safe’ – they have done the ‘right thing, and they don’t have to go through the challenge of exploration and experiment. Unfortunately, this approach rarely delivers anything alive and interesting, instead, we get ‘result acting’ – often tired and cliched.


In business too, the employee who is given all the answers is not helped to develop, and the leader is swamped with a constant need to provide answers and affirmation. To counteract this ‘result acting’ it is vital that the director does not direct on the basis of results. Instead, we keep encouraging actors to play, to push, to experiment and to continue to commit to the rehearsal process.


For the business leader looking to foster more creativity in their business there are a number of parallels to be drawn:


  • How can we foster an atmosphere of creativity where employees won’t simply reach for the simplest solution or the way things have always been done?
  • How might we reward individuals who are trying new approaches, who are looking to tackle problems in new ways?
  • How might we use technology to encourage greater collaboration?
  • How will the culture of the organisation deal empower those questioning orthodoxy?
  • How will we encourage play, curiosity and humour?


The challenges of the future demand more creativity and collaboration – this is at the heart of how the theatre works.



Giles Havergal: “Although one is totally in charge, I feel much more that I’m working with people rather than that they’re working for me and that is actually how I feel about running a theatre or running a business.  I think you get a better response.”

2. Motivating with Vision


Natasha Rickman: It’s about having a clear process the actors can then prepare for and know what’s going to happen


There is an idea that directing is about moving actors around the stage and telling them how to say the lines – this could not (now) be further from the truth.


Acting is a joyous but also scary thing to do and this can lead actors of all ages and experience levels to seek to fix a performance and to get it ‘right’. However, this approach to acting rarely delivers anything truly alive and interesting – it too often leads to cliché and, in the worst cases, over-acting, where the actor strives for an emotional pitch, but with little grounding in truth. In business that might mean the same old solutions to problems – turning out an unimaginative marketing campaign, sales incentives or partner kick-offs – because everyone is too busy, lethargic, or simply uninspired, to try anything new.


To counteract this ‘result acting’ it is vital that the director does not direct on the basis of results. Rather they keep encouraging actors to play and to explore, keeping the performance alive by continuing to commit to the rehearsal process. And it is vital through all of this work that the director assumes ‘best endeavours’ – the premise that everyone is doing their best to improve and achieve excellence.



For the business leader, there are a number of lessons to be learned. Most obviously, how can we foster an atmosphere of creativity and freedom where employees won’t simply reach for the simplest solution or the way things have always been done? How can we set a clear process that will get us to the goals we seek; so that individuals have a degree of autonomy over their performance and can focus on what is in their control.


Sue Dunderdale: They have to have confidence in you. You have to be both an equal and the leader or focal point. We are doing equally important tasks just different, but if you don’t fulfill your task of having a structure to work from, having a focus in the room of creating an atmosphere that releases them and relaxes them they’re not going to get anywhere.


3. Creating Trust


Sarah Esdaile: I think a lot of directing is about trust. It’s about showing, not telling. I’m deliberately emotionally open which makes people feel safe and that’s partly my personality and that’s partly practical. I think that makes people trust me and I have an emotional vulnerability, as well as toughness. What I aspire to is being able to say, “Oh god don’t do that you look like a ****” and that’s absolutely brilliant for both of us.


The director creates a place of trust where actors can be freed from self-limiting beliefs and self-consciousness to play, stretch themselves and learn from failure.


The rehearsal process demands that actors take risks – sometimes emotionally, but most often trying ideas where they make look or feel daft. They have to play with what is possible to get beyond obvious and cliché. The director rewards this commitment to play and risk to encourage yet more fearlessness from that actor and their colleagues – they reinforce the behaviour with praise and by building on the actors’ ideas.


The director has to foster a team dynamic quickly. Unlike in business where the leader is often working with a team for years, in the theatre, the director brings together a group of actors, often with vastly different life and acting experiences, and has to rapidly form them into a functioning team.


This can’t be achieved with a few trust games or an away day building rafts (although that might be fun!) Instead, the director has to quickly help the team to collectively agree on goals. In the theatre, this means most obviously having the production ready for ‘opening night’ but can incorporate much more than that. The measures of success may be far wider than full houses – perhaps what we learn as a group about acting and ourselves, what new understanding we achieve about the play or our world.


In the same way, in business, there’s a revenue, market share or profit number to be hit, but we can also create richer and deeper goals to increase the sense of team purpose and achievement. The work of Simon Sinek here is especially instructive.


We might create a Team Charter or a Team Alliance to align on what behaviours and attitudes will get us to our stated goals.


In the theatre, once we have a clear sense of the team’s goals and purpose the director can focus the team on building towards those goals. They will take care to ensure the room is a ‘safe’ environment where people are free from humiliation, encouraged to try new things and to take ownership of their own performance. There is little more damaging to fostering a strong sense of trust than fear. A culture of fear can result in team members vying for position, when their ego becomes more important than the collective endeavour, whilst others may simply disconnect from the process and stop contributing.


However, a safe environment should not mean no disagreements – indeed, healthy conflict is vital to driving the team on to create their best work. Once we are all clear on the goal and have a sense of trust robust discussion can be channelled in service of getting the best result for the team.


As a leader what space do you give to new ideas? How do you celebrate when people try new things (even if they aren’t always successful)? How might we reward individuals who are trying new approaches, who are looking to tackle problems in new ways? Can your team have challenging discussions without damaging their relationships?


Liz Stevenson: Admitting errors reassures actors. It also creates an environment where people can fail and I think it shows an element of confidence in your leadership, that you can criticise yourself; that you can say I don’t know, but it’s ok and we don’t need to panic – we will find a solution.


4. Intentional Energy

Sarah Esdaile: I think part of the leadership is for you not to be the hero, for them not to know all the work that you’re doing. It’s like being a duck swimming along not knowing all the shit you’re dealing with. It’s not my job to overload them with all the crap that I’m dealing with – it’s my job to liberate them.


The good director, like the good leader in sporting, military or business fields, needs emotional control and patience. These are vital in the projection of authority. The director’s energy is the most crucial in the room, she understands that her energy provides an example to the team and so cultivates the ability to excite with enthusiasm and engender calm in a crisis.


A positive, engaged and calm presence is vital to settle the team and help them to understand that you are in control and able to cope with any of the challenges thrown at you. The actor can then relax and concentrate on their performance. It is a simple and effective way of communicating to the cast what energy is expected of them and of the atmosphere that one wishes to work in. It is the classic show, not tell.

In business too, uncontrolled swings in mood and energy can have an unsettling effect. When times are tough the team will look to the leader to assess the situation and react calmly and confidently. We cannot think clearly when in a state of very high emotion and a team cannot function effectively if they worry their leader will panic.


By cultivating a sense of emotional control and patience the leader can engender confidence in their team and help ensure they are in the right state of mind to give their best creative work.


Whilst some people are more naturally ‘calm’ than others, a heightened awareness of our physical and emotional impact is crucial for the leader and is at the centre of the work we do at 4D. Whether it is your breath, voice, posture or gestures you have far more power to control the energy you project into the world than you may believe.


Liz Stevenson: It is important because your energy, your mood filters through to everybody in the room so if you’re really stressed and unhappy and frustrated they will pick up on that and you can’t always help the way you feel. You’re a human being, but you should make a conscious effort to stay calm. If you blow up and say what you’re thinking sometimes it can have a really damaging effect that means they won’t trust you so I think you’ve got a responsibility to stay calm.

The team at 4D have over 50 years of theatre experience, coupled with strong business backgrounds; we have a passion and expertise for Psychology and a practice grounded in Integral Theory.

Through our work on Communication, Wellbeing and Team Performance we bring simple and clear tools combining our experience to businesses across the world. If you’d like to explore how the 4D tools can help bring these principles to life for your team, please contact Matt Beresford on

The Surprising benefits of being Surprised!

The Surprising benefits of being Surprised!

Is your life made up of lots of little surprises? If not why not!? Shake up expectation, spark up relationships and stay present and proactive by peppering your life with small and simple surprises. This isn’t about great big gestures, or lavish set-ups. In fact, the smaller and more regular the better, because when it comes to surprise, size doesn’t matter.

In this article we’re exploring the brain boosting benefits of surprise and looking at ways we can shake up the script by bringing more of the unexpected into our everyday lives. In fact, we’re redefining what we mean by ‘everyday life’ by swapping mundane and ordinary for unexpected and extraordinary! Join us as we step into surprise and discover some of its startling benefits such as: enhanced memory, increased happiness, strengthened relationships, heightened resilience and greater opportunities to create and innovate.

Surprise yourself

Anyone who has young kids will have heard of the surprise egg videos on YouTube. For those of you who haven’t they are basically videos of someone unwrapping a plastic egg filled with small toys. That’s it. Here’s an example of someone unwrapping several surprise eggs covered in ‘play-doh’. And this 21-minute video has over 600 million views! In his thought-provoking Ted Talk, James Bridle describes these videos as “crack for little kids. There’s something about the repetition, the constant little dopamine hit of the reveal, that completely hooks them in. And little kids watch these videos over and over and over again, and they do it for hours and hours and hours.”

No alt text provided for this image


Now whilst I’m not suggesting you spend your lunch break watching surprise egg videos, there is something to be learnt from this seemingly bizarre obsession. The surprise is very simple. The brain rewards the children with the same feel-good chemicals as if they were opening the surprise eggs themselves. The hippocampus is one of the most important brain regions involved in the discovery process, a crucial component in triggering the surprise sequence in the brain. This is because the hippocampus serves as the brain’s “novelty detector” by comparing the sensory information coming in with what’s already known. If this information differs from what is expected, it triggers the release of dopamine- the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter. This feedback loop is what makes surprise feel so good (and is also what makes these strange videos so addictive to kids!)

In one study 25 people underwent MRI scans while having water or fruit juice squirted into their mouth, either in a predictable or unpredictable pattern. The scans revealed that the brain’s pleasure centre was most strongly activated when the squirts were unpredictable. Researchers commented that: “The region lights up like a Christmas tree on the MRI[when surprised]. That suggests people are designed to crave the unexpected.”

Thankfully there are countless ways to enjoy the benefits of surprise in your everyday life. It could be as simple as changing your usual greeting. Instead of asking your partner “how was your day?” perhaps you ask them: “what was the most exciting thing you did today?” This subtle change has given your partner the opportunity to tell a different story and has given your relationship a chance to break away from its usual script. A small and simple surprise is sometimes all it takes to wake us up to the moment and shine a light on something unfamiliar or new.

No alt text provided for this image

Surprise others

Couples guru John Gottman believes that the secret to a happy relationship is to ’show up’ everyday by doing little things to show that you care. This isn’t about bringing home flowers or cooking a special dinner (although by all means do!) This is about breaking predictable patterns, with small gestures that show not only that you care, but also that you are present in the relationship. To quote John Gottman: “Like the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that in closed energy systems things tend to run down and get less orderly, the same seems to be true of closed relationships like marriages. My guess is that if you do nothing to make things get better in your marriage but do not do anything wrong, the marriage will still tend to get worse over time. To maintain a balanced emotional ecology, you need to make an effort—think about your spouse during the day, think about how to make a good thing even better, and act.” 

No alt text provided for this image

When we look at someone through a lens of expectation and past experience, we don’t give them space to grow. By fixing them in our mind we limit opportunity for growth and development in the relationship. I’m currently reading a fascinating book called Playing Pygmalion: how people create one another and the author Ruthellen Josselson talks about how “we have a stake in people being…what we need them to be for us…[and] when we have sculpted people out of our own need, our relationship with them becomes fulfilling – but lifeless.”

When we’ve known someone for a long time, we can quite easily stop seeing them as they actually are. We see what we choose to see based on our own patterns and conditioning. But actually, we are so much more than that. You may have met an ex and suddenly discover they love scuba diving and mountain biking. Who knew! What has happened is that their new relationship has allowed them to express another part of themselves. To use the wise words of Goethe: “treat an individual as they are and they will remain how they are. Treat him as he ought to be or could be and he will become what he ought to be or could be.” Embracing surprise in relationship can be a hugely transformative tool for reinvigorating and reimagining a relationship. A great example of this in my life is with my relationship with my identical twin sister Penelope Waller. 15 years ago, I never would have dreamed we could work collaboratively and now…we run a company together! With hindsight we can see so many of these wonderful unexpected surprises in my life. Surprises that remind us to regularly shake up relationships, so that they always have the space to develop and grow.

No alt text provided for this image

Surprising strangers

I heard a beautiful story on The Mindvalley Podcast from motivational speaker and therapist Sean Stephenson. Sean learnt about the power of ‘surprise connection’ when he was 8-years old, thanks to a surprise encounter with an airport shuttle driver. Sean stayed at the front of the bus and spoke to the driver for the duration of the ride back to the hotel. Later that evening as he and his family were eating at the hotel’s restaurant, the driver came up to Sean and his family and thanked Sean for talking to him. He told them about how sad and lonely he’d been after a recent divorce and how he had actually planned to take his own life that evening. However, after his unexpected conversation with Sean he realised there was life left in him. And that his life was worth living. Such a small, simple thing, such as talking to a stranger, can be the most wonderful- and perhaps even life-changing- surprise.

We all carry around this power to surprise but we have to be present in order to access it. Because surprise captures our attention, takes us away from our thoughts and gives us a moment of heightened attention. It goes beyond communication. Surprise is about connecting. It is one of the primal threads that has the power to connect us and close the gap between us and ‘other’. So why not surprise yourself and somebody else today? Take a moment to look up from your phone and connect with a stranger. You might be surprised to find that they aren’t that strange after all.

No alt text provided for this image

Surprise innovation

Why should you sprinkle surprise into your next meeting? Because it will trigger a release of dopamine in your colleagues’ brains, boost your team members’ long term memory and will improve their creativity and ability to think outside the box. One study discovered that: “the release of dopamine in the hippocampus of rats activates the synapses among nerve cells, creating stronger connections that lead to long-term memory storage.” Another study took this further and used FMRI scanners to compare long and short-term memory in humans. Test subjects were divided into 2 groups and the first group were shown a series of known images, whereas the second group were shown mix of known and unknown images. The FMRI data revealed that the second group were better at remembering the images as their scans showed greater activity in the SN and VTA areas of the brain.

No alt text provided for this image


Surprise is also a key ingredient for disruptive innovation. Disruptive innovators capitalise on the power of surprise by reaching further, connecting disconnected ideas and embracing blank canvas thinking. So, if you want to redefine a category, create new customer behaviour or change the trajectory of your business, you are going to have to embrace the power of surprise.

An example of surprise innovation comes from King Price Insurance. The company offers an alternative to conventional car insurance plans by offering decreasing premiums in line with a car’s decreasing value. By considering a lot more data, the company has been able to offer cheaper, short-term insurance plans and retain happier customers, who find themselves regularly rewarded with a cheaper rate.

Don’t save up surprises!

With April Fool’s day only a week away, why not start flexing those surprise muscles by startling yourself, your colleagues or even an unknowing stranger! Let’s not save surprise for special occasions. Bring a ‘jack-in-a-box’ attitude into the boardroom, the energy of a party popper to your PT session and the essence of an unexpected win to a weekday dinner date. Bring to mind one person, perhaps a team member, partner or friend, and think of way you can surprise them right after reading this article. Perhaps you text them a quote, send them a thankful email or invite them for a coffee. Something so small and simple can be a great surprise to someone and can have a profoundly positive impact on their aptitude for work, mental health and overall wellbeing. So, don’t wait for their birthday or retirement party to say the things you want to say: surprise them today!

Improvisation and organisational change: How to lead with flexibility and possibility in response to rapid change

Improvisation and organisational change: How to lead with flexibility and possibility in response to rapid change

Improvisation has a bad reputation and I’m on a mission to change that. One mention of the word in workshops and people start to shuffle towards the door, fearing that I’m going to force them onto the ‘stage’ to do something embarrassing. Which is incredibly interesting considering that we are all improvising, all of the time. According to Shakespeare “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.” So, we are a part of the performance of ‘life’ whether we like it or not. And we don’t have a script, stage directions or a director telling us what to do. In fact, we don’t even get a rehearsal. We are live on stage all of the time, making it up as we go along. 

But we’re not on stage alone. We’re part of many improv teams. And in the workplace, these vary from small divisions within departments, right up to the whole organisation, which in itself is always working with a wider improv team: partners, clients, the market and… the world! The question is what kind of improviser do you want to be? The worst improvisers ‘block’ the scenes, (those people who criticise and focus on the mistakes or problems). Those who are ‘ok’ will passively but agreeably ‘play’ (not really adding or creating anything new). Good improvisers ‘build’ on what you offer. But the great ones know how to build AND make great offers. And of course, the very best improvisers not only fully ‘play in’ but also have their eye on the longer arc of where we can take the story together. Exceptional improvisers don’t just play in when things are going well, they are also willing to jump into a scene that is crumbling to ashes – and are happy to either save you or fail with you! And then there are the rare few who don’t only jump in to help their own team…they cross boundaries and borders to jump into other teams with the sole purpose of creating the best shared experience possible.

…And that’s exactly what we need to call forth from ourselves in leadership. So that we can be fully present and fearless players and collaborators who are building and responding to rapid change, whilst also having an eye on that longer-term arc of possibility.

Improv for Business

Learning the skills of business improvisation and employing them in the market place can help you, as leaders and team members, to navigate through the unexpected and achieve results in uncertain markets.

Business Improvisation is poised to be the next ‘killer app’ for organisational growth and performance. Investing in the performance of the moment, during crisis and when under pressure, is quickly becoming the next frontier for maximising ROI. It is a highly valuable tool designed to enhance the skills and productivity of an organisation’s most valuable asset: its people. Learning the skills of business improvisation and employing them in the market place can help you, as leaders and team members, to navigate through the unexpected and achieve results in uncertain markets.

Working with Teams

The old adage “There’s no I in Team” suggests that being in a team is no place to feel, think and behave like an individual. This is patently untrue as history and experience has shown that successful teams in every field are nearly always made up of talented individuals that have agreed to work together for a common goal. In fact, according to research from Stanford University team performance improves when the people in a team acknowledge and utilise the members’ individual personalities and creativity. And research conducted around teams of mechanical engineers also suggests that “teams do better when they are composed of people with the widest possible range of personalities, even though it may take longer for such psychologically diverse teams to achieve good cooperation. They must first cultivate an openness to opposing opinions and recognise the value of exploring a problem from various angles.” Therefore, while there may be no I in team, there is a ME. At the heart of a successful team is each member’s ability to recognise and understand their own unique creativity and spontaneity as well as communicate effectively, efficiently and with ENERGY on a regular basis. Because global solutions start with individual solutions. In our everyday interactions, in our everyday relationships, in the choices that we make, in the way that we are and in the manner we treat each other… in every single moment. We might have different approaches when it comes to the unpredictable world of business, innovation & leadership but when those different styles come together and we are ‘Ready for Anything’ then almost anything is possible.

Bringing the improviser mindset to work helps us to adapt to change in a fast and fluid way. When we live from this place we practice non-attachment, not only to the self (and with that our pride and ‘needing to be right’) but also to our individual ideas. Because improvisers know that if they have an idea they can make an offer, but if something else comes up and changes the direction, then they can just as easily drop that offer. Something else will arise because it’s a co-creative effort. It’s not just you on your own. The power of improvisation in teams comes from trusting in the team; trusting that the team is inherently creative, collaborative and willing to work as one. This is one of key differences between stand-up comedy and improvisation, which so often get lumped together in the same box. Stand-up comedy is a solo game and is usually tightly scripted. Whereas improv is a team game. Someone’s always got your back. And there’s no script…

Missed opportunity

Think of an offer in your career that you might have missed had you not been open to unexpected opportunity. Perhaps you stumbled across a business opportunity at the bar after work or received a surprise job offer that you decided to pursue. A friend recently received a fairly routine recruiter email and instead of deleting it like usual, he decided to reply “out of curiosity”. 1-month on and he’s working in a completely different industry and doing work that really excites him. His whole working life has changed because of one simple click. Which is why it’s important to remember that you are only ever one decision away from a completely different life. That’s not to say that you necessarily need to make any radical changes: it’s simply about staying open and present to the possibilities that each and every offer brings.

One of the most famous examples of an offer that could have so easily been missed is Viagra. Viagra started out as Sildenafil, a new treatment for angina (a heart condition that constricts the vessels that supply the heart with blood). However, there was an ‘unexpected’ side effect that almost caused the company to completely right off the drug. At the time, the company was going through a lot of organisational change (geographically and internally) which meant that very different departments were sharing the same space. Out of this mix of ranks and roles came Viagra, which was literally discovered because of a ‘water cooler moment’: somebody from a different department was being told in the kitchen about the male patients’ surprisingly ’positive’ effects and they started a conversation. Which turned into an innovation. It was a sudden offer. But it wasn’t an expected offer and in many ways it was an unwanted offer because it didn’t help the clinical trial that was happening at that time. Yet, it actually turned out to be rather lucrative opportunity!

Curious about Change

If we try to predict the future we will invariably be disappointed because our perception of ourselves, our relationships, our life experiences, our careers and our networks are not like pre-written plays. They are more like improvised scenes: there are no lines or stage directions and so we must learn to work with all offers – whatever is arising. So, by replacing control with curiosity we can start to see life’s curve balls as creative challenges.

One of the best ways of leading with curiosity is by being present and open to the bigger picture. Present awareness is key because it’s all too easy to slip into auto-pilot prediction mode. The brain is brilliant at conserving energy and if it believes it’s seen a situation before, it switches off and stops looking for any originality in the scene. Unfortunately, this energy saving tactic stops us from staying present to the changes and complexities of the current world and as leaders it’s vital that we stay awake or else miss great offers simply because of an assumption about how we thought a meeting or presentation was going to play out. The skill of improvisation is an essential tool needed for conscious relationships, great leadership, and global solutions. It’s about re-imagining our intellectual capacity, re-programming our emotional responses, re-booting our physical behaviours and re-wiring our intentional purpose, so that we can consciously create the impact we choose, in all 4 dimensions: physically, emotionally, intellectually and intentionally.

By replacing control with curiosity we can start to see life’s curve balls as creative challenges.

So, the next time you get a strong sense of “been here, done that…” try to stay awake to the differences- however subtle- so that you can respond to offers and play in when needed. Maybe you notice a drop-in morale and decide to organise a team social. It might be a seemingly small and simple offer but with that offer comes a sense of your support and attention, as you were really seeing the team in the present moment. We are not human-doings, we are human beings. And when you live life like an improviser you are operating from this being state. You stay present with where you are, who you are with and how you- and the people around you- are feeling. Instead of planning the future, play in the present moment. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to step into the spotlight. Perhaps you’re not needed on some occasions, which is fine too. Because simply knowing that you’re paying attention will be of huge value your team as you are present to the long-arc of possibility. Your ‘playing in’ power comes from your presence and perspective. You notice when help is needed but you also have the selflessness to step away, allowing others to thrive and shine, centre stage.

Seeing the system

Let’s start seeing and embracing change: living in it, learning from it and leading through it.

As I’m sure many of you have experienced, it’s all too easy to get lost in the ‘scene’ playing out in your office or department and lose sight of the bigger picture. As Frederick Laloux asks in his book ‘Reinventing organisations: “Could we invent a more powerful, more soulful, more meaningful way to work together, if only we change our belief system?” I believe the improviser mindset is key because great improvisers are not only able to be present with the scene presenting itself in front of them but they also are aware of the wider story. And the wider system. Therefore, leading like an improviser is akin to integral thinking and systems work because it enables you to embrace all of the different thinking styles, strengths and talents in your team, department and organisation. You are both a mirror and a mover: reflecting the present, responding in real time and remaining flexible to change. As opposed to fighting it or forcing it through!

As leaders we must meet our teams where they are at, by seeing them as they are, in the present day. From here we can co-create, collaborate and ‘play’ together in the present moment. And who knows, something seemingly disastrous might just turn out to be the best business decision you’ve ever made. When you lead your team from where they are at, instead of running ahead, predicting and planning what you think- or hope- is going to come next, you offer yourself and others a wealth of possibility. Yes, let’s be bold and dream big. But let’s embrace the fact that life is forever changing around us. Nothing is completely secure or certain and when we grasp to the impossible ideal of certainty, we get stuck as we are, paralysed by a fear of change. Yet, even if we aren’t paying attention to it. Even if we are pretending it’s all staying the same. It’s still changing in small and subtle ways. Perhaps you discover that an incredibly quiet and shy member of you team is also a budding stand-up comedian. Can you be flexible and open to this ever changing and- slightly unexpected- identity shift? So that you can encourage and utilise their full, unbounded potential? Leading with an improviser’s mindset is about being mindful of each and every interaction, so that you can offer your colleagues, team and organisation, the gift of fluidity: don’t fix them, free them through flexible and adaptable leadership. Let’s start seeing and embracing change: living in it, learning from it and leading through it.

Yes and…

We don’t know what’s around the corner but we can choose to stay curious and open.

When you switch your mindset from micromanager to improviser you’ll discover endless possibility, unexpected opportunity and the freedom to live a life without limits. The skills needed to improvise can be mapped onto the mastery of living, the art of relationships and the aptitude of leadership. And what’s amazing is that you can do it too. You don’t need to be a professional performer to access the fun, flexible and fearless power of improv in the everyday. I know that many people find the idea of improvisation intimidating, but it’s simply listening to your inner intuition. You are already standing on the stage, so why not let your improvisational instinct drive the show!

I recently had the incredible opportunity of speaking at Tedx Glasgow about the The Improvising Mindset: How each interaction shapes your reality. A huge thank you to Tedx Glasgow and all the volunteers, inspirational speakers, incredible sponsors and the wonderful audience. A truly game-changing global platform… where we can share and connect through our deepest stories. To watch my talk and many others please click here.

Fearless and Foolish: Three reasons to be an April Fool this month

Fearless and Foolish: Three reasons to be an April Fool this month

Many of us are terrified of appearing foolish in public. We might be mocked, humiliated, laughed at or perhaps even alienated from the group, team or tribe. But what if there were very good reasons to play the fool? What if we are missing out on opportunities to be fearless and free because we are scared of looking stupid? In this month’s article we flip foolishness on its head and consider the benefits of being the fool. Read on to discover how clowning around might help you to connect to unexpected opportunities, inspiration and joy. 

In his jaw-dropping documentary ‘The Push’, Derren Brown examines the power of social compliance and tests whether he can coerce a member of the public to push someone off a building. Over the space of 50 minutes, an elaborate psychological scenario- involving a team of 70 actors, 50 hidden cameras and a fake corpse (created by an Oscar Award Winning special effects artist)- manages to convince unknowing Business Owner, Chris Kingston, to carry out some terrible acts. It’s a daring and impressive set-up, involving special effects, weeks of rehearsals and first-class improvisers. But ultimately, what convinces Chris to act out of character is peer pressure: he is fearful of appearing out of place and looking foolish to the people around him. Yet, had he dared to be foolish- to speak up and stand out- he would’ve stopped the spiral of events that eventually lead him to the rooftop of a 50ft building.

Shakespeare certainly didn’t fear the fool. In fact, he acknowledged the power of the fool because he gave some of his wisest lines to his most foolish characters. As Touchstone says in ‘As you like it’: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” Perhaps it’s wise to think of ourselves as fools because they are fearless and free from the limitations of social and culture expectations. This isn’t just about celebrating April fool’s: it’s about appreciating all of our inner fools and finding more space for them to play about in our day-to-day lives. Here are three reasons good reasons why you should be a little more foolish!

1. Fight Fear

The worry around looking foolish in public is often tied up with fear and potential shame, both of which cripple creativity. When we are in a state of fear, we shut down possibilities and opportunities in order to limit danger and damage. The fear of conflict or disruption- even it is just a potential threat- can cause us to close off and comply. We want to stay safe, so we avoid anything out of the ordinary, different or potentially dangerous. It might seem as if it’s a choice between comfortable and creative but it’s actually the difference between limited and limitless. The illusion of ‘comfort’ is created by fear which feeds off itself and forces you into an even smaller box, which limits both the lens that you look through and the life that you live. The fearless fool on the other hand is like a jack-in-a-box, pushing through the glass ceiling of ‘what’s possible’ and into a world of untapped potential. So perhaps we should use foolishness to unpick the very fear of foolishness itself because “Sometimes you just have to play the role of the fool to fool the fool who thinks they are fooling you,”(Anonymous).

“Fear is the main source of superstition, and the main source of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.”

– Bertrand Russel.

If we are ruled by fear then how will we ever reach our full potential? Susan Jeffers tells us to “feel the fear and do it anyway”, because if we feel the fear and don’t do anything then what might we be missing out on? Surely the fool is the very person who fears being the fool, a state that will impact their life decisions and the way they lead and work with the people around them. If you fear your inner fool then you are modelling a set of ideals that tells others that foolishness is unacceptable. However, if you share your foolish side with your team, family or group of friends, you allow others to do the same. You create a safe space that encourages them to step up and say something brave, ask an obvious question or make a silly joke!

A fantastic example of ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ is Daniel Kish, who grew up totally blind after having had both of his eyes removed at 13 months due to eye cancer. As a child he learnt to click his tongue in order to navigate his way around his surroundings. He climbed trees, explored the neighbourhood and by 6 years old, had learnt to ride a bike. However, this incredible progress was largely the result of ‘playing the fool.’ Many parents and teachers thought his clicking was socially unacceptable, even though it was his way of seeing the world. Sometimes he walked into walls or fell over but this ‘foolishness’ is what enabled a blind boy to see. When criticised for letting her blind son ride a bike, Daniel’s mum simply replied “how could I not?” (‘How to become batman’- Invisibilia). Not trying and never knowing was worse than trying and falling off. To use the wonderful words of George A. A. Martin, novelist and creator of Game of Thrones, “the greatest fools are ofttimes more clever than the men who laugh at them.”

One of the most important places we can use the fool is during the darkest moment of our lives. Fooling around can help us to see moments of light during intense periods of grief. I remember when I lost my partner Tom, I went to a support group which was full of sadness and grief. Whilst I’m sure it was great for some, it wasn’t what I needed and so I started reading up on alternative therapies. I was struck by a man in California who had lost his son and in spite of all of the devastation and heartbreak, he knew he wanted to find a better way to deal with his fear and sadness. So, he turned to improvisation and comedy and set up a support group for people experiencing similar pain and loss. Together they laugh, fool around and discover the potential for hope and healing.

2. Inspire innovative thinking

The story about the healing improv group brings us to our second reason to play the fool: innovation. Fooling around inspires innovative, creative thinking because playing puts us in our most creative state. During our workshops we run an improvisation game that encourages spontaneous thought. Initially people tend to play the game in a clunky, robotic way, sometimes finding it hard to think on the spot. However, when we get them into a state of play the game suddenly becomes simple and surprisingly fun! In a fear driven state, cortisol is released into the brain and stops us from being creative. So, the science shows us the importance of being silly because fooling around can positively affect the chemistry in your brain!

“We are educating people out of their creative capacities…I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it.”

– Ken Robinson

Most people find that they get their best ideas when they are going for a walk or laughing with friends. Which is why a silly, playful coffee break might be exactly what your team needs before a brainstorming session. Big, bold and brilliant ideas come from silly suggestions. Look at AirBnB, Uber and Netflix, 3 companies who have completely changed the way we holiday, travel and watch TV. Vinod Khosla, venture capitalist and cofounder of Sun Microsystems, commented that it was “irreverence, foolish confidence and naivety combined with persistence, open mindedness and a continual ability to learn that created Facebook, Google, Yahoo, eBay, Microsoft, Apple, Juniper, AOL, Sun Microsystems and others.” Disruptive innovation is the very thing that sounds foolish at the beginning and then of course…it’s so obvious!  And like Shakespeare’s fools those crazy ideas from the disruptive innovators were in fact, very wise words.

Sir Ken Robinson is a big advocate of creativity in education and believes it’s as important as literacy. At school we are told to sit down and be quiet but then asked to come up with a piece of creative writing! Which is completely counterintuitive because the fool often expresses itself physically and ideas simply can’t flow as easily when we are stuck behind a desk. The same applies at work when we are struggling with a problem or having difficulties coming up with a new idea. Are you all sat around a table hunched over your laptops? And if you’re the leader, are you offering a safe space for silly suggestions? They are two questions worth considering because one silly game might be all it takes to get your team into a productive and playful state. One methodology we like to use comes from ‘Kill the company’ a book that essentially encourages employees to ask crazy questions, like for example: what would we have to do to ruin our company? It might sound like a foolish question but it’s a question that digs deep down into a company’s vulnerabilities, perhaps questioning how a competitor might outperform them. Answering this question can provide a lot of information, not only about how to save the company from potential threats, but also about how to help it grow and innovate into the future. Sometimes the foolish question can be the most thought-provoking.

3. Entertain everyone, including yourself

The third and final reason to be more foolish is because it can be very entertaining! And entertainment isn’t just useful in the arts: it’s a key skill that will help you to engage audiences, whether you’re delivering a key note or telling a story at a party. In our presentation skills programmes we hear a lot of feedback about what audiences like and dislike about a presenter and almost always, it comes down to the way the content was communicated. After all, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel,” (Maya Angelou) I can’t remember one time where someone praised the content but didn’t like the speaker. People are much more likely to enjoy a talk because it was entertaining, which is where something we call edutainment comes into play. When a presentation is engaging, it stimulates the emotional brain and will encourage the topics and information to ‘stick.’ Advertising agents understand this very well, harnessing the power of this ‘stickiness’ to help generate engagement and memorability. It is the ‘glue’ to which the facts ‘stick’. So, like advertisers, we too should harness this power, particularly when we are trying to share important information. Play the fool and entertain your audience so that the facts will stick in their brains.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

-Maya Angelou

At this year’s Oscar’s Jimmy Kimmel was able to entertain us with jokes about Harvey Weinstein which was, at the same time, stressing the importance of this cultural shift and sending a serious message to the film industry about what is no longer allowed. Fooling around can be a great way of disguising an important message and discussing difficult issues. Hasan Minaj, an American comedian and ‘Daily Show’ host, was chosen to speak at the 2017 White House Correspondents’ Dinner and made clever use of comedy to question Trump’s government. For example, he commented on the very controversy of his own speech by linking it to First Amendment: “This event is about celebrating the First Amendment and free speech. Free speech is the foundation of an open and liberal democracy from college campuses to the White House. Only in America can a first generation Indian American Muslim kid get on this stage and make fun of the President.” It’s amusing as it is awe-inspiring and it shows the power of performance in the political spectrum.

Have fun fooling!

So, there you have it. Three very good reasons to play the fool this April. It can:


1. Help you get over fear.

2. Be more creative.

3. Entertain and inspire people. 

And also, it’s good for your health! Foolish fun induces laughter, which has been scientifically proven to improve the immune system, by decreasing stress hormones and increasing immune cells and disease-fighting antibodies! So, find some time to fool about and you might just give your mind, body and business a silly step in the right direction!

“Stay hungry, stay foolish”

 Steve Jobs.