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ATD Blog

Developing Improvisational Leadership

Friday, May 27, 2022

In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, the dominant narrative of good leaders as heroic and charismatic personalities is becoming less useful. No longer can we assume that a great individual leader can see through the fog of complexity to guide an organization toward the future. Our understanding of how leadership should function must change—in Fielding Graduate University’s organization development and leadership master’s program, we explore the concept of emergent property (the collaborative functioning of a system) as an alternative approach. This view of leadership indicates that as people make meaning and coordinate their lives together, patterns of interaction emerge from the complex relationships developed. Some of these interactions produce patterns that people refer to as “leadership.”

What, then, are the implications for leadership development? One response of leadership development programs to an increasingly VUCA world has been to include concepts and skills of navigating complexity and being more comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. However, even if those programs produce insights with some individuals, those leaders may have difficulties translating those insights into better leadership if the patterns of interactions in their work relationships have not changed. Regardless of how much an individual has transformed their thinking and skills, only so much can be done if those around them have not changed.

Suppose we view the emergence of leadership as a social phenomenon. In that case, the development of that emergence should happen with the social network within the situated context in which the leadership needs to happen. Leadership development amounts to changing the patterns of interaction such that leadership can emerge. Leadership can be compared to improvisation, whether jazz, comedy, or theatrical. This metaphor emphasizes the relatedness, the move-by-move nature of leadership emergence, and how individuals in the group play off each other’s moves. Jazz musician Ornette Coleman said, “Jazz is the only music in which the same note can be played night after night but differently each time.”

In the same vein, leadership is a collective group performance in which a similar set of actions can be played day after day. Still, the outcome remains unknowable rather than predictable. There may be more to learn from improvisation when intending to develop leadership in the everyday. Comedian Tina Fey describes the rules for improvisational comedy as agreement on a given set of circumstances, adding to the discussion, making statements rather than only asking questions, and recognizing there are no mistakes. In some local contexts, this set of requirements may be an example of an interaction pattern labeled as leadership.


If leadership is improvisational, so too is its development. This has many implications for reimagining what leadership development now becomes. Traditional leadership development sometimes attempts to reduce ambiguity by defining values, behaviors, or qualities across a group of individuals that are considered leaders. These restrictions may lower the ability to create improvisational action. We may need to unlearn, or at least augment, what is often taken for granted as legitimate leadership development.

Just as jazz musicians practice on their own to learn new skills and practice together to understand each other’s skills and how to interact together best, leadership development can and should be a group activity. The group should include people who collaborate on the issues, problems, and aspirations that they have day to day.
Individual leadership development should not be set aside; rather, the social processes of leadership construction should be accounted for in developing leadership. By also developing leadership, not as a quality or effect of an individual but as an emergent phenomenon of a group of people, leadership can emerge to respond better to the current situation, no matter how volatile, uncertain, complex, or ambiguous.

About the Author

Dr. Keith Ray is the program director for Fielding Graduate University’s Master of Arts in Organization Development and Leadership. He brings more than 25 years of experience in organization development and leadership to the director role, building a successful organization development practice that cultivated leadership and change with government and commercial clients. As a scholar-practitioner, Keith has combined his research interests and OD practice by creating customized cohort-based leadership development programs, studying leadership development impacts within organizations, and conducting studies using social network analysis and narrative methods. Keith has partnered closely with clients to understand how organization development and leadership occur in the day-to-day communicative actions. Theories of social constructionism and complexity inform his practice and his writings. Keith has authored book chapters on Dialogic Process Consultation and Dialogic Leadership Development and several articles on the same subjects.

1 Comment
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Excellent! The Tina Fey description of improvisation as "agreement" coupled with "adding" is encapsulated in the improv mantra "Say Yes And" - a simple yet powerful concept for business and life in general. The Applied Improvisation Network has been applying improv concepts to learning and organizational development for over 20 years - gratified to see the continued development of an improv body of knowledge.
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