How Improvisational Thinking Makes You a Better Leader

Kristen Brun
Founder and Executive Coach
Automatic Summary

Transform Leadership with Improvisation

Hello, I'm Kristen Braun, a seasoned improviser, leadership coach, and facilitator with over 15 years of leadership experience in the realms of advertising, tech, and marketing. Over the past six and a half years, I've discovered how my hobby of improv can transform anyone's leadership skills and bring them to the forefront. There is no need for one to perform terrifying live shows like I do—unless you want to.

Improvisational Thinking: A New Approach to Leadership

Even though we typically consider improvisational theatre to be comedic, it does not always have to be. When you are in the moment, immersing yourself completely, that's when the magic happens. This state of being is possible because of certain patterns observed during improvisation: an increased activation of our medial prefrontal cortex and a decrease in activity from the lateral prefrontal cortex. The medial prefrontal cortex is essential for language and creativity, while the lateral prefrontal cortex is often associated with self-monitoring or your inner critic.

Your inner critic, though a part of you, can be a hurdle to creativity. This doesn't mean your inner critic is inherently bad—it can be useful in evaluating ideas or assessing potential threats. However, for creativity to flourish, you must let your ideas come to you free from judgment, which is a core feature of improvisational comedy.

Improvisation and Leadership: A Parallel Approach

Not only can improv help you silence your inner critic, but it can also make you an authentic, empathetic, and adaptive leader. Recent research shows that improv training in the workplace leads to an increase in playfulness, individual and group creativity, and empathy. In my model of effective leadership—Ad Lib leadership—presence is the foundation. The other four components being resilience, authenticity, supportive and creativity.

How To Develop Improvisational Thinking?


Being in the moment is critical for both improv and leadership. Practicing mindfulness can help you grow this skill. Take a few moments of mindfulness every day and observe your surroundings. This could be as simple as taking stock of what you can see, feel or smell before a meeting.


Being authentic stems from trusting your instincts. Your initial response is usually your most authentic, and likely the most relatable to your team. So follow those instincts.


Having resilience is all about building a tolerance for failure. Learning to deal with failure is like flexing a muscle—the more you do it, the stronger it gets.


Creativity or divergent thinking, generating new and original ideas, can be augmented by actively engaging in idea generating sessions. Establish an ideation process where judging ideas is not allowed.


Be supportive. As a leader, it is important to know when to lead and when to let someone else take the reins. Many breakthroughs occur when you stop trying to control everything.

Lastly, I want to leave you with these points:

  • Being present is the foundation to developing improvisational thinking.
  • Your inner critic can be helpful, consider it as a tool rather than an adversary.
  • Practice. It plays an important role in building neural pathways and making this approach more natural.

If you're interested in further developing these skills, reach out and take advantage of the free 30-minute coaching session I am offering. You can also download a comprehensive list of 12 exercises from my website or by scanning the given QR code.

I look forward to connecting and hearing from you soon.

Video Transcription

All right. Hello everyone. My name is Kristen Braun. And I have this strange hobby where on a regular basis I get up on stage in front of a group of mostly strangers and I make things up with no preparation whatsoever.And it turns out that this is actually a recurring nightmare for a lot of people which I completely understand. But the skills I've learned by doing this for 6.5 years now have been incredibly impactful for me. And I've learned how they can help make anyone a better leader with no terrifying live performances required. Unless you would like to. In addition to being an improviser, I'm a leadership coach and facilitator based in San Francisco, California. And prior to starting my own business, I spent 15 years leading various teams in advertising, tech and marketing. And I worked everywhere from a 10 person start up where I was the only woman for a chunk of time to fortune 100 corporations. So I really relate to a lot of the challenges that women tech go to go through. And this also happens to be one of my favorite group of people to work with. So I'm really excited to be here with you today. Now, you'll hear me talk a lot about leadership here since this is cheap in tech and that's also primarily who I work with. But I do want to note that this content is useful at any level.

And in particular, I'm gonna be giving you some exercises at the end that you can do on your own without any team required. So it'll, it should be useful regardless. I will also try to leave a couple of minutes at the end for questions. So if you have any along the way, please go ahead and type them into the Q and A box. Now, when I first get on stage, it usually feels something like this, very aware of the fact that I'm on stage. People are looking at me and it's easy to let myself get in my head and start to worry and that's really the point where that voice can kick in and you can worry about like, what do I, what do I look like right now? What am I gonna say? Is it gonna be silly? But what ultimately happens is I then remember that it's not just me because that's the beautiful part of improvisational theater is it's almost always a group of people on stage and we're ultimately a team and we have each other's backs and we core things that we never could have imagined on our own.

And while I do like to say that improv does not necessarily equal comedy because improvisational theater can actually be quite fun to watch without being funny. We're usually pretty funny. So I, I will say that and what happens is like I get into this flow state where that voice inside my head just kind of shuts off and I'm totally and completely in the moment. And that's when the really good stuff happens. So why is this the case? Well, there is a neurosurgeon named Charles Limb who did a number of F MRI studies on the effects of improvisation on the brain in 2008. And there were two patterns he saw happening when someone was improvising. So the first thing was an increase in activation of the medial prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain activated by language and creativity, which makes sense when with improvising. And the other thing that was happening is these blue sections here was a decrease in activity from the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is associated with self monitoring. And that part of your brain is what you might know as your inner judge or your inner critic or just that terrible voice in your head, who likes to critique every single thing that you do and make you question whether it's good enough or whether it was a good idea and so forth.

So that that is something that when you do improv, it tends to go away, especially with enough practice. And the thing about your inner judge is that it's not inherently bad on its own. Its primary function is actually to help you survive and helping you assess potential threats such as whether it's safe to eat that particular berry and so forth. But and it can even have some usefulness when it comes to evaluating ideas as long as you can consider it from a broader perspective. But when it comes to creativity, it cannot coexist and you have to be able to let your ideas come to you free of judgment in order for them to flourish. And that's what we really see happening with improv. So how does this relate to leadership? Well Gardner recently created this model for human leadership and they're arguing that in today's environment, it's most important for leaders to be authentic, empathetic and adaptive. And it turns out that improv actually helps you with all of this research on workplace outcomes associated with improv training are still really in their infancy.

But just a few studies that came out over the last several years for an example, one study across nine companies found that improv workshops resulted in increases in workplace playfulness, individual creativity and group creativity. Another study of health care professionals found significant increases in empathy as measured by patients after a 15 hour improv course. And another study measured increases in creativity, uncertainty, tolerance and effective well being after engaging in just 20 minutes of improv exercises, which is not very much.

So it's worth noting that. So at this point, you might be thinking like, ok, so that's great. Why doesn't everyone just take improv classes? They exist in most cities across the country and across the world? But it turns out that most people, when I mentioned the prospect of joining me at an improv class, just a one time thing. No, ongoing commitment, plenty of alcohol available consumption afterwards and so forth. I get a response. That's something like this. Yeah. So remember that whole overused statistic about people fearing public speaking more than death. There's some truth to that. And when you throw in fear of impromptu speaking specifically along with potentially making a fool of yourself and being forced to make mistakes and all of that jazz, very few people are crazy enough. One might say to actually take this on as a hobby that I just happened to be one of them. But so I will say if this is remotely appealing to you, if you're curious about an improv class, please please go take one. I strongly encourage you to do it. But if you're like this, something like 98% of the population who relates a lot more to this woman, that's totally fine too because you don't actually have to take one to get a lot of the same benefits.

Now, often when I tell somebody that I'm going to an improv rehearsal, they usually say something along the lines of how do you rehearse something that's unscripted. But the thing is our improv classes and rehearsals are mostly made up of games and exercises that are specifically built to train certain skills. And by doing some of these exercises and games on your own and, or with a group of people, you can develop a lot of these same neural pathways in your brain just like you would when you're building any other skill, which means you get to reap a lot of the same rewards in your work and your personal life.

It turns out it actually relates to a lot of your life. And this is what I really call improvisational thinking, using improv skills, principles and exercises to build the parts of your brain that make you a more creative, authentic and empathetic leader. Back to what Gartner said is a human leadership. So what's involved in actually doing this? Well, I've created a model of the five most important areas of improv as applied to leadership. And I call this the ad lib leader, Ad Lib leader model to somebody who is practicing improvisational thinking throughout their approach to leadership. Now, in this model, presence is the foundation. It's the thing that has to exist before any of the rest of this can happen. And then the other four components of an Ad Lib leader are resilience, authenticity, supportive and creativity. Now, I can teach a full two day workshop worth of content on this. But since our time today is limited, I'm gonna give you one focus area for each of these starting with present. Now, if you've done anything at all with improv a workshop or just heard something, you've probably heard the concept of yes. And which means that there's, there's two steps first, you accept what your teammates have put forth, which is the yes part and then you also add your own contribution, which is the and part.

So the thing with yes and being such the core foundational part of improv is if you miss something really important because you weren't paying attention. For example, your scene partner has said that you're in a school classroom and that's where your scene is taking place. And then you go in and you say that you guys are actually on the International Space Station. It's gonna be a lot harder to create a coherent scene. So that means to be a good improviser, it's essential to know how to be present in the moment and, and to be listening closely and not allowing your inner judge to take over. But it turns out this is really true for leadership as well. We talk a lot about executive presence or leadership presence as this kind of mythical quality that somebody just has or doesn't. And the reality is that being is that presence, presence of executive presence, leadership presence, any presence really starts with being present period.

Being present, being in the moment means that you'll be able to truly listen to your colleagues and team members. You'll be aware of any important challenges or opportunities that arise. You'll grow your own self-awareness and emotional regulation and you'll communicate more effectively.

And the key to this is that you don't need to actually do that much to start growing those skills. If you want to do as I did once and go on a 10 day silent meditation retreat to really refine your mindfulness skills, fantastic. But it doesn't even need to be meditation. It can just be a few moments of, of conscious mindfulness while you're waiting for people to join your Zoom. Call, for example, once or twice a day. And one of my favorite activities for this is what I call five senses observation, which is literally just before a quick meeting or before a meeting or a presentation or something else. High stakes, take a moment to close your eyes, open them and then name within your immediate environment. Five things you can see four things you can physically feel like the chair beneath your legs. For example, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. And this is a really great way to ground yourself and help you really focus on what's happening in the present moment. And I have this exercise as well as some other ones and a guide that you can get after this workshop. Next, authenticity in improv, we have a saying called follow your feet.

And most of the time if you have not seen an improv show, not all of the improvisers in a particular group are actually on stage at once. Usually you have two or three people who are doing a scene together and then the other people will be on the sidelines kind of waiting to step into support or to start a new scene and we follow the feet comes in because a lot of times you can see a moment where somebody has an idea pop into their head and their body actually leans forward, their foot takes a step forward like they want to come into the scene to make it happen.

And then there's just this moment of hesitation and that's just enough for the inner judge to kick in and say, hey, I don't know if that, that idea is good enough. And that hesitation basically means that the moment is lost and this happens all the time, not just an improv, but things like speaking up in a meeting as well where a lot of times you second guess what you're gonna say so much that the opportunity to say it is gone. And really the antidote to this is to trust your body and to trust your instincts. Your first response is usually the best one because it's from your gut. It's authentic. It's likely to be more relatable for people on your team. And you also don't need to worry if this response, it seems too obvious because it realistically, it's probably not obvious to everyone in the room. And if it, even if it is, there's probably one person in that room who will benefit from you saying it. So to help with this, you can really focus on being more aware of what your initial responses are and this is something that your mindfulness practice will help with. So first recognizing, OK, what is my initial response? And then how does my inner judge respond to it? Now, there are going to be perfect legitimate cases where your inner judge has a valid point. Like for example, if your initial response is something that might be offensive to a lot of people. Great, that's a perfect use case to not say it.

But I think you'll find more often that your inner judge is shutting things down out of fear and changing. That really starts with that awareness that your mindfulness practice is going to help you with. Next resilience. So and begin our improv classes. We often celebrate anytime someone in the class makes a mistake which can admittedly be a little jarring. And why is that? Well, an improper one thing, mistakes are actually gifts. That's something you learn pretty early on if, if you use them appropriately. But also making mistakes, often trains your brain that it's OK to take risks. And there's nothing quite as powerful as knowing deep down that whatever is thrown at you, whether it's in life on stage, in the workplace, you'll figure out a way to handle it that deep faith in yourself can get you through a whole lot of crisis and it makes you incredibly valuable as a leader.

So how do you start building that up? Well, you do it by failing a lot and I hate failure as much as the next inner perfectionist. But because so make so many things, learning how to deal with failure is just a muscle and the more experience you have with it, the better prepared you're gonna be to face it in the future. Now, of course, you don't want to just start screwing something up for the sake of screwing it up if it's something really important. So the key here is really to lower the stakes and provide yourself with environment where it's safe for you to take some rest and even better yet establish an environment for your team as counterintuitive as it may sound, helping your team learn how to fail. It. Fail, will ultimately help them succeed when it really matters. Now, creativity, you may be familiar with the concept of convergent versus divergent thinking where con convergent thinking is finding concrete familiar solutions to problems while divergent thinking is the creative process of generating original new ideas and new possibilities.

So, convergent thinking is a place where your inner judge can actually be useful, but to truly drive creativity and innovation, you need to have some kind of space and process for divergent thinking to exist, whether this is for a whole company or whether it's just for you. Now, there are a number of exercises and tools out there to help you do this and I'll provide you with some of them at the end. But it can also be as simple as establishing creative activity sessions that focus entirely in new ideas where judgment isn't allowed, it's just crucial to actually enforce those boundaries. Finally, we arrive at supportive. Now being present is already going to help you a lot with your supportive because you're gonna listen more effectively and be more aware of the emotions of others. But in addition to that improvise is constant balance of knowing when to lead and when to follow because it only works when everybody is both accepting the ideas of others and adding their own contribution and you need your team to be doing this as well. So as a leader that needs, you need to be prepared, come with an agenda and ideas, but also know when to let go of your own ideas and recognize when your team has something better to explore.

I found that a lot of breakthroughs happen when you stop trying to control everything. So we're, we're getting to the end of our time here. There's three points that I want to leave you with first being present is the foundation. If you only have time to work on one of these, start with being present, start with your mindfulness practice because it is essential to make everything else happen. Secondly, your inner judge is a tool, not an enemy. And as long as you recognize it and are aware of it and know when it's useful and when it's not, it can actually be very effective in your life. And finally practice is incredibly important because all of this is about building those neural pathways so that it becomes easier to do in the future. But also any practice is better than none. So don't hold yourself back by thinking that you need to have this, this whole practice in place. That's 40 minutes a day. Anything is better than nothing. So I'm gonna leave you here with a few things. So since I said putting this information into practice is the most important part. I have a PDF, you can download of 12 exercises that you can do entirely on your own, but you can also do them with other people as well.

And it's based on a lot of the things we talked about today. So you can download it by scanning this QR code. I also have the URL written out there as well and you can also feel free to reach out to me if you have issues with both of those and I will happily send it to you. I also am offering a free 30 minute coaching session for anyone from this talk. So if you would like to take advantage of that, you can reach out to me as well of my email, my website and my linkedin on here. And then finally, please feel free to connect on linkedin and keep in touch with me in general. I would love to continue this discussion and I think we've ran out of a little bit of time. I did see one question that came through on it. Is are there other mindful tactics for being present? And yes, there are a not a lot of tactics out there, a huge amount of them. But I do have, if you go ahead and download that PDF, I have four of them in there. And if you reach out to me, I would happy to provide you with any other suggestions as well.

So I am going to pause there and thank you guys so much for being here and thank you to the Women Tech Global Conference for having me and please feel free to contact me if you want to continue the discussion. Thank you.