A Leadership and Life Tool That You Didn’t Know You Needed? Improv.
October 27, 2023
Mary Lemmer is the founder of Improve, a company that improves lives, teams, companies, and impact, in ways that work and just so happen to be fun and engaging. She is a keynote speaker, leadership and team trainer, conference session facilitator, longtime entrepreneur, author, improv comedian, philanthropist, and recovering venture capitalist and startup unicorn director. She gave the TED Talk “How improv can improve your leadership and life” and has spoken at TED Women, the Social Innovation Summit, The Positive Business Conference, multiple years at the Agile Alliance conferences, in addition to speaking with and leading transformational programming for companies around the world.

Mary is a graduate of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, and has trained at notorious improv comedy theaters including The Second City, Upright Citizens Brigade, and The Groundlings.

My calendar looked like someone threw up on it.

I was attached to this calendar. If something didn’t go as I planned it would throw me off into a tailspin of anxiety and irritation. Though my obsessive scheduling made me an incredibly organized and overcommitted young executive, it made me a miserable human.

I had started a business as a teenager and between managing a growing business, working at an early stage venture capital firm, teaching indoor cycling classes (before Peloton was cool), and sleeping as little as I was, I didn’t have the time or tools to manage myself, especially amidst unforeseen circumstances.

Every minute of my day was planned. Yet rarely anything went as planned.

One day went especially unexpectedly. That morning I drove by my gelato shop and noticed that no one was working, despite it being past opening hours. Apparently the college student scheduled to work had slept in. While waiting for him to arrive I opened the store, noticing the iPad POS system was shattered. My internal teapot about to boil over, I thought, “How did I not know about this?” By this point my day’s plans were totally derailed and I was shaken up that things weren’t going as I plotted. Over two hours and $500 at the Apple store later, I returned to the gelato shop with a new iPad and a bloody nose. This was the cherry on top of an already frustrating day, and it was just too much for my internal kettle to handle.

Upstairs in the private office, I laid on the bean bag and burst into tears. Crying, bleeding, and exhausted, the bags under my eyes almost as heavy as the bean bag, one of our staff members found me, speaking to me with words that continued to haunt my mind subsequent times I found myself on the metaphorical bean bag. “Mary, go home. Take care of yourself. Get some rest.” I felt embarrassed. Here I was supposed to be a leader and I couldn’t even hold it together in front of my team. I left with my bloody paper towel, an Apple receipt, and a bag filled with shame.

This was one of many wakeup calls. I needed to change.

After taking a real vacation, one where my laptop didn’t join me, I returned refreshed and vowed to do something to bring me joy and fun in life. I decided to take an improv class.

Little did I know that ‘joy and fun’ would also bring me personal and professional transformation. My first improv class was nothing short of magic. I didn’t know what to expect, and that’s kind of the point. Any nerves quickly dissipated once we got started. I vividly remember feeling free, relaxed, and without tension in my body.

Improv empowered me to be better at communication, connection, trust, adaptability, teamwork, compassion, psychological safety, creativity, resilience, health and wellbeing, and other topics that go above and beyond just making people laugh.

You see, in improv, everything you say and do is right. There are no mistakes. There just is what is, with full acceptance and support. In the improv environment I was free to be me, acting honestly and without fear or judgment. This made it a great venue to practice building confidence, exercising creativity, adaptability, and learning to feel relaxed amidst rapid change, lack of control, and uncertainty.

And here’s the thing about certainty…there’s little certainty in life and business, and one of the few is that it’s filled with uncertainty and change. One of the things that helps us navigate chaos, uncertainty, and change is the ability to improvise.

For so much of my life up until this point I was constantly in my head, thinking about what to say, when to say it, how to say it. I’d strategize the best move to make in business and life. I was always thinking about what would be the right thing to say, or the best choice to make. In many ways, this strategic skillset made me great at my job. But my inability to adapt when things didn’t go as planned was knocking me over left and right.

If you’re like I was (and many executives are), perhaps you, too, are often in your head, thinking, overthinking, strategizing, and regularly considering future happenings or past decisions. If you’re great at assessing metrics on a spreadsheet and finding the most eloquent words to put in an email you’ve drafted 17 times, or organizing meetings down to the minute, improv might just be the leadership tool you didn’t know you needed.


Imagine being able to think through possibilities AND also maintain focus in the present moment. Imagine the ability to efficiently allocate work across your team AND connect with and build trust among your team. Imagine having a calendar planned to the minute AND finding joy when something doesn’t happen exactly as listed.

The more I improvised the more I noticed improv helping me straddle these worlds - the ability to strategize, make plans, and implement those plans, and the ability to adapt, change course, make new decisions with new information, and find joy amidst broken iPads and bloody noses. Improv empowered me to be better at communication, connection, trust, adaptability, teamwork, compassion, psychological safety, creativity, resilience, health and wellbeing, and other topics that go above and beyond just making people laugh. Over the past 10 years I’ve brought improv inspired techniques to thousands of leaders, including those at some of the world’s largest companies. Every leader needs to be able to improvise and improvise well, because every leader is an improviser – constantly creating and inspiring while managing amidst change, uncertainty, and many things outside of their control.

Even more impressively, improvisation can be supported by science. If you want to learn more about the research behind improvisation as an important leadership tool and ways to bring improvisational tools to benefit your leadership and teams, visit chooseimprove.com

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