Opening act ad lib: New Desautels MBA Students Take Cues From Improvisational Theatre

By Chris Chipello

What does improvisational theatre have to do with leadership skills?

Quite a bit, MBA students in the Desautels Faculty of Management learned last week. Successful leaders, like improv artists, need to be quick-thinking, energetic, creative and collaborative. Humour helps, too.

But most important, top improv actor, director and writer Rob Nickerson told the students, is “whole listening” – listening intently and with all one’s senses, to process as much information as possible. That skill is key to making “the right decision at this moment, for this moment,” he said.

Nickerson’s high-voltage, often rollicking three-hour workshop was one part of an innovative “Global Leadership” seminar – led by Desautels professor Nancy J. Adler – that constitutes one of the core courses in Desautels’s revised MBA curriculum. About 100 incoming students are enrolled in the program, representing 27 countries.

During a three-day seminar conducted at Centre Mont-Royal on Sherbrooke St., participants discussed books such as Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat, shared words of leadership wisdom from their respective cultures, and contemplated the role of “moral blindness, moral deafness and moral muteness” in allowing such disasters as the collapse of Enron Corp.

Under the guidance of Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Beverly Shaffer, students made video recordings of their responses to questions similar to those put to presidents, prime ministers and chief executive officers at the Davos World Economic Forum. (Sample question: What one thing do you think you need to do to make the world a better place in the next two years?)

The aim of the seminar, Adler explained, is to give the new MBAs a chance to work together to address “some of the world’s most challenging leadership questions: How can business produce a healthy bottom line by contributing to the world’s social and environmental well-being?” Adler, an award-winning professor, added that “whereas no one has the definitive answer to such questions, no one can responsibly assume leadership in the 21st century without seriously addressing them.”

The session with Nickerson, the improvisational artist, was designed to explore “the skills needed to respond spontaneously and effectively, as individuals and as teams, to the complex challenges facing leaders in a rapidly changing world.”

To illustrate the importance of listening, Nickerson kicked off the session by having groups of six new MBAs collectively develop stories, with each person adding one word at a time to the evolving tale. For the group effort to work, everyone must listen carefully to the others – and be prepared to help them succeed, or to pick them up when they falter.

That and a series of other storytelling exercises that followed were designed, Nickerson explained, to show that teamwork is about “building solutions that benefit all of us.” Everyone contributes to building the story, no matter how modest their role – just as every part of a company contributes to its success.

“Your role as leaders is to inspire: to inspire change, to inspire solutions, to inspire the people that work with you to do things they don’t think they can do,” Nickerson concluded. “It’s not about me, it’s about us – and not just us, but all of us on the planet.”