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Can Improv help you grow Servant Leaders?

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

Servant Leadership is all the rage nowadays. But it’s been around for almost 50 years. Robert Greenleaf coined the phrase in 1970.

The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions

— Robert Greenleaf

Can you be a servant leader if you’re not a leader? Does servant leadership go against what we’ve been taught our entire lives? What can we do to change these thinking patterns that are so ingrained in many of us?

Let’s expand the definition of “Servant Leader” to include any team member. The idea is that every team member serves the good of the team. This can be a big change in organizations who believe that making each individual stronger adds up to a strong organization. An Agile organization focuses on the making each team stronger in order to execute on large ideas. We see this in organizations that have dropped individual performance reviews, favoring team assessments in their place.

Servant Leadership ties directly to the Improv concept of “making your partner look good.” and “don’t try to be clever or unique.” In Improv, your goal is not to be the brightest star on the stage, it’s to make the group shine. Sometimes in Improv, your role is to blend into the background or provide a meaningless filler. A player in my Improv class astutely noted that “this goes against what we’ve been taught our entire lives! We’re taught to be different, stand out, be known.” Yup, it’s different. And there’s room for both.

Here are some great Improv techniques that will help your team become a group of servant leaders.

  1. One word story: Sit in a circle. The facilitator gives the title of the story and starts with a word. Each participant adds a single word onto the story. Instruct the team to go with the flow, and say what needs to be said instead of trying to thwart the story. The team will learn that sometimes you get an opportunity for a juicy word like “dragon” and sometimes you just have to say “to” or “the”. Those boring little words serve the story, and serve the team. You’ll also see that after you say a word, the story might not unfold as you envisioned it. The team learns to let go of trying to plan.

  2. Cocktail party: This exercise hearkens back to old Laugh-In skits where someone cracked a joke while the rest of the players paused. This is a stage-like activity that works best if you have more than 6 people and a group that has played around with a bit of Improv. Create 6 pairs, at a cocktail party. The audience volunteers simple topics for the pairs to chat about. The facilitator directs each pair when to speak. The pair speaks about anything, there’s no need to try and be clever. The real work is in keeping the focus on the pair that is speaking without looking at them and without creating a distraction.

  3. Team “Building”. Get a group 5 people, everyone else will be the audience. Prep a list of things they can “build” such as ‘a table’, ‘a grandfather clock’, ‘a bulldozer’ or ‘a frog’. I recommend you don’t try to build ‘people’, but animals work. One at a time, each player positions their body as part of the thing they are building. Once positioned, a player doesn’t change, the next player must build on what is there. You’ll find that sometimes symmetry is needed, and you have to do the other side of what someone else has done. For example, if you’re building a table and 3 of the players have made table legs, well you’ve got to be a table leg. This is another way to get the team completing each other instead of pulling in different direction. It also gets people used to building on each other’s ideas and supporting the ideas of their teammates.

What have you done to build servant leaders? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section!

He who is the greatest among you shall be your servant.

— Martin Luther King

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