Kathy Klotz-Guest

When Leading Means Following: Improvisation, Workplace Collaboration, and Going Where the Sun Doesn’t Always Shine

In Innovation and Improvisation on April 10, 2011 at 8:01 pm

A Southern ex-boss from my high-tech marketing days (and with whom I have become good friends) used to say, “The sun doesn’t always shine on the same dog’s ass all the time.” His offbeat managerial witticisms made me laugh and they were often right. In improvisation – just as it is in the workplace – sometimes we lead and sometimes we follow. We can’t always be in the spotlight. That’s what it means to work and play in a team-based environment. One of the most important leadership skills an improviser and co-worker can develop is knowing when not to enter a ‘scene,’ or when to let other players (co-workers, etc.) take focus. To be a leader, you sometimes have to follow. Often, the greatest leadership challenge is knowing exactly when to let go. And that takes practice.

The beauty of collaboration in improvisation is a lot like collaborating in the workplace – when we listen and support each other, the outcomes are better. And that means sometimes we are the center of the action with players and co-workers supporting our decisions. Other times, the best thing for a scene or an outcome in the workplace is to let others shine and to support their ideas by making them look great. That calls for big values: “doing right, not being right.” Doing the right thing for the team sometimes means letting go of being right. Platitudes are easy, following them…well, not so much.

When we share the ‘stage,’ at work or at play, we build critical skills of trust that serves the team’s best interest. The only way to engender trust for the times we take focus is by making sure we support others when they take the spotlight. When we let others shine, they are more likely to step up and support us when we lead. If everyone is out for “number one,” why pretend to have a team at all? If I know you’ll get my back, I’m more likely to get yours.  It’s how humans are wired. Trust matters.

In a recent improvisation show with friends, a situation surfaced much as it does at work. Two improvisers had focus and momentum. I was already on stage and I had a quick decision to make. Think about the how this same scenario manifests at work where two co-workers are “creating” something. Of course, we’re there, so we need to jump in to add our ideas, right? We need focus, too!

Not necessarily. It feels natural to want to jump in with our ideas. Still, a great improviser, team player, co-worker, boss, etc., asks herself (himself) the following before barging in:

  • Am I often the “focus?”
  • Am I jumping in just to participate without having a way to add value, or “raise the stakes?”
  • Does the situation have a rhythm of its own that works without me?

If the answer to all these is “yes,” hold back. At this moment, being a leader means letting your own ideas go, and making the right choice for the scene. It’s not easy. The ability to recognize when it is time to follow is the difference between merely good versus great collaboration and leadership.

Go beyond the obvious, and challenge yourself to follow sometimes. There will always be opportunities to lead by taking focus. Remember the sun will always shine – just not always on you.

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