How to Practice Improv Leadership to Become a Better Leader

It’s easy to talk about enhancing performance, improving efficiency and being a more influential leader. So why don’t we do it more?

Maybe it is because leadership books often feel stale. It’s often a same-idea, different-author experience. Leadership is a set of abilities, and it can be learned and improved on a regular basis. But we have to seek that improvement.

Does boredom keep you from scheduling time on a regular basis to grow your leadership skills?


Anyone who’s learned the basics of an instrument can follow a chord chart or play from sheet music, but only musicians who have carefully developed their talent can improvise. Instead of being limited to the notes on the page, great improvisers draw on the theory and techniques they’ve learned in the past to create something original in the present.

The same is true of great leaders. Anyone can read a few books and apply the lessons, but only the best leaders can bring out the best in any person, in any situation. These improvisational leaders understand the key principles of connecting, coaching, and communicating and use these ideas to build strong teams.

In Improv Leadership, Stan L. Endicott and David A. Miller share five leadership competencies which allow IMPROV leaders to initiate powerful conversations, create memorable moments, and craft personal coaching strategies that help people grow. Improv Leadership cultivates teams of people who love their work (and each other), who perform at a high level, and who stop the disruptive carousel of staff turnover.

Stan L. Endicott and David A. Miller have worked together to identify the overarching competencies of effective leadership and develop concrete tools to help every reader become a leader who understands how to grow teams one moment and one relationship at a time. The five competencies of IMPROV Leadership are not rigid sequential steps, nor do they apply only to specific industries or fields. Instead, this book will meet the felt need for leadership growth with “evergreen” principles that can be successfully introduced into any situation.

You can’t predict every challenge you’ll face. There’s no playbook that covers every decision. But with practice in Improv Leadership you can lead well in every situation.


According to authors Stan Endicott and David Miller, improv is not making something up on the spot. Improv is bringing together many basic, well-known elements to form a complex whole that fits with the moment.

Your first thought when you hear “improv” may be in terms of music, but did you ever think that everyone improvises hundreds of times a day? It is called language.

The simplest, most routine sentence we utter rests on thousands of hours of experience learning words, grammar, and syntax. It comes by a little instruction and a lot of trial and error.

As a leader, your words have power with others. We have more responsibility for what happens and does not happen as a result of what we say.

No matter what problem you might encounter in your organization, you have a better chance of navigating it successfully with IMPOV leadership.

Stan Endicott and David Miller

The five leadership competencies of IMPROV leadership are:

Story Mining – Thoughtfully uncovering a person’s story and letting it shape the way you lead them. It is not about making people better. It is about making people known.

Precision Praising – Carefully crafting praise to inspire, motivate and even course-correct your team. It refers to the right words of affirmation given to the right person at the right place and time.

Metaphor Cementing – Using concrete illustrations to “cement” an idea in someone’s mind.

Lobbing Forward – Creatively challenging people to look beyond today to what might be in the future.

Going North – Using indirect influence to redirect a person’s perspective.

Stan Endicott and David Miller, with Cory Hartman, Improv Leadership


Use the following ideas and exercises by the authors to begin practicing the five leadership competencies of IMPROV leadership.

Story Mining

Answer the following for each person who reports to you directly.

  1. What are your team member’s children’s names? Grandchildren’s? (For bonus points, how old are they, or what grade are they in?)
  2. Where and how did your team member meet his/her spouse?
  3. Where did your team member grow up? How often do they go back there?
  4. Where else has your team member lived that had a significant impact on their life story?
  5. What is your team member’s most prized possession?
  6. What (outside of work) does your team member enjoy doing?
  7. What is your team member’s idea of a great vacation?

How did you do?

Precision Praising

Think about a time when someone praised you such that it changed the course of your story. With the help of the tool below, think about what was going on that made that moment of pride impactive, and look for clues of how you can create a similar moment for the people on your team.

  1. What precisely were you praised for? What were the details and specifics of the praise?
  2. How well did the person know you at the time? What was the scope and depth of your relationship with the person who praised you?
  3. Was there something unique about the timing of the praise? If so, what?
  4. Was there something special about the context or location of the praise? If so, what?
  5. Did anyone else hear the praise? If so, how did the presence of others influence the dynamics of the praise?
  6. What was the immediate impact of the praise in your life?
  7. How often have you remembered that moment in your life? What has been the long-term impact?
  8. Do you think the person would be surprised that you are talking about their praise now? Why or why not?

Metaphor Cementing

The greatest communicators use metaphors as a painter uses a brush. If we as leaders want to touch our people with a message that they cannot misunderstand and cannot ignore, we must learn to use the tool too.

As you think through the metaphors you are going to use in your next meeting, presentation, or one-on-one with a team member, use these three guardrails to stay inside of and make the most of those opportunities.

  1. Stand on Common Ground – Use a metaphor that both you and your audience understand.
  2. Line Up Your Shot – Make sure you have your words just right.
  3. Don’t Paint a Picture; Build a Gallery – Use a variety of metaphors over time so as to work the same concept from different angles.

Lobbing Forward

Committing to practice Lobbing Forward initiates a change in the leader before there is a change in the people being led.

  1. Lobbing Forward requires a leader to be humble.
  2. An established pattern of Precision Praising sets up Lobbing Forward well.
  3. You have to know your people well.
  4. Lobbing Forward is more often done in private.
  5. Use tried-and-true word choices.
  6. You can Lob Forward with entire teams as well as individuals.

Going North

Here are five fundamentals for Going North:

  1. Reveal common ground.
  2. Surprise with a gift.
  3. Disrupt the setting.
  4. Teach using story.
  5. Create a shared experience. 

Part of a regular series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

During my elementary school years one of the things I looked forward to the most was the delivery of “My Weekly Reader,” a weekly educational magazine designed for children and containing news-based, current events.

It became a regular part of my love for reading, and helped develop my curiosity about the world around us.

Along with early and ongoing encouragement from my parents – especially my father – reading was established as a passion in my life that I was happy to continually learn from, share with my children, and watch them share with their children.


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