Learning Leadership, One Improv Game at a Time

Seminar Room C at the University of Chicago Law School. Twenty students, two professors, and a woman none of them have ever met. The students and professors have divided into five groups and have been given 10 minutes to come up with a product that has never existed before—anywhere. When time expires, they will present their product to the group, explaining not only its function and market niche, but also to what demographic it is targeted and who the celebrity spokesperson will be. Oh, and they also need a jingle.

Odd snippets of brainstorming begin to emerge from the groups:

“What rhymes with O?” “Everything!”

“Tupac inspired me.”

“…patented sucking technology…”

 “Spongebob is the answer.”

“Truckbed mounted….(scribble scribble)….Taylor Swift…. (scribble scribble)…hologram….”

 “Yeah, that’s not safe.”

This is a session of the Law School’s course entitled “Leadership,” taught by David Zarfes, Associate Dean for Corporate and Legal Affairs, and Lecturer in Law Michael Bloom, that took place in May. The woman at the front of the room is Dionna Griffin-Irons, the Director of Outreach and Diversity for Chicago’s famed Second City improvisational theater troupe. And the topic of this day’s class is “Communication and Conflict Resolution.” Griffin-Irons has been brought in by Todd Itami, ’13, who is part of the group tasked with helping to lead this session of the class. Whether Itami knew what he and his classmates were in for is another story.

Zarfes’s course on leadership is designed to help Chicago Law students develop the skills they need to deal with the increasingly blurred line between law and business. “Today’s clients look to their lawyers for much more than legal advice,” said Zarfes, “they also want results-focused solutions to complex business problems. Young lawyers are finding it difficult, with the way legal services are currently structured, to get the experiences that allow them to become the leaders that clients need.”

The course covers topics such as project management, strategic vision, conflict management, forms of influence, ethical leadership, scandal and crisis management, and business leadership, both from a theoretical and a practical perspective, all designed to help students become effective leaders and problem solvers. Students write papers for the course on a wide variety of topics. Some of this year’s have included, “Leadership and Educational Protests in Chile,” “The Role of the Situation in Effective Leadership,” “Leadership and Gender,” and “Public Communications in Crisis: Domino’s Pizza and Toyota Case Studies.” Zarfes notes that a course in leadership is nothing new, but it is relatively unusual in law schools. “We aren’t trying to turn our law school into a business school,” he says, “but there is definitely room—and need—for students to have exposure to these more business-oriented concepts if they are to be viewed as business lawyers and trusted advisors.”

Every week three or four of the students are assigned to lead a portion of the discussion—and in keeping with the theme of the class, it is their choice how to do so. In a departure from the usual class style, Itami, Caleb Hanlon, ’13, and Andres Laymuns, LLM ’12, the leaders of the Communications session, chose to bring in Second City.

Griffin-Irons began the session with some classic improv warm up games. Students were asked to “pass the clap” around the room, and once they’d mastered that, to use the syllables “zip, zap, zup” along with the clapping. Then students were asked to make eye contact with another person in the room, and silently switch places with that person once they’d made contact. To an outsider, it would be easy to find this all fairly silly, but the games had their intended effect: they loosened everyone up both physically and mentally, and allowed everyone to get over their apprehension about “doing improv in class.”

The next exercise paired the students off, then asked the partners to carefully examine each other’s appearance. The partners then turned their backs to each other, and were asked to change three things about their own appearance, then turn back and have the other person identify those things. What first seemed to be an exercise about paying attention to detail quickly turned into something more, as Griffin-Irons asked the students to turn again, this time changing four new things about themselves, and then again with five new things. The students constantly had to reach to be even more creative in their changes. When they struggled to find four things to change, they thought it would be impossible to then change five, but the more ridiculous it got, the easier it was for them to think outside the box—initial changes included untucking shirts and the removal of single shoes and socks while later ones saw the turning inside out of pockets and messing up of hairdos. Students were asked how they felt about the exercise immediately afterward, and the comments were telling: “I thought there weren’t a lot of options at first, but then I thought of things.” ”It was hard to get ideas, but then I looked at what other people were doing.” “My partner did ridiculous things, so I wanted to as well.”

Griffin-Irons explained that improv helps students learn communications skills because the fear that you will fail to come up with a choice is universal, and yet everyone in the class overcame that “wall” and did just fine. “One of the great discoveries of improv,” said Griffin-Irons, “is thinking out of the box and seeing that the choices are unlimited. Improv is about going with the flow and knowing you have everything you need.”

Zarfes feels that this is very much what this session of the class was meant to teach. “So many people are afraid to take the lead in a business negotiation or brainstorming session because they are afraid that they’ll fail to come to an agreement or have nothing to contribute,” said Zarfes. “Dionna’s exercises showed the students that if they come prepared to a business meeting of any kind, then they can trust their intelligence and training to get them the rest of the way to success.”

Griffin-Irons invoked other classic improv tropes as well, most notably the concept of “yes, and…” In improv, this means that when working with a partner, one never negates an idea that the partner throws into the scene; a good partner instead takes the suggestion and not only embraces it, but adds to it. Students practiced blocking each other’s suggestions, then using “no-but” language to partially accept suggestions, and finally used “yes and” to have a conversation. The excitement level around the room noticeably grew as partners “yes-anded” each other into ridiculousness. They created imaginary murals and applauded for every idea as if it were the best they’d ever heard. Griffin-Irons noted that “it feels great to have someone support your idea and build on it with active listening.” Zarfes notes that students who employ this tactic, whether as junior employees or as managers, are likely to have much more productive relationships with their colleagues and the employees they lead. Griffin-Irons agrees, saying, “too often in collaboration, people are denying each other.” Griffin-Irons also says that in a business setting, not every idea actually is great or even useful, but that it is important for leaders to find a way to support their team members and help move towards a good idea.

The class culminated with those group sales pitches. One group presented a wrinkle remover that functioned by way of a full-body hologram (celebrity spokesperson: Hugh Hefner), another a mobile app to text water directly to poor children in Africa (jingle, to the tune of “Golddigger”: “Text me water, ‘cause I’m in need….”), yet another a combination gun rack and beer cooler (“designed for a truck bed, but can be retooled for your Kia”). The students were all noticeably looser and more willing to go for the crazy idea than they had been at the beginning of the class session.

Griffin-Irons explained that improv is a great tool for teaching people both leadership and communication because “we all improvise every moment of every day. Improv reminds us that we have to actively listen, make the other person look good, and trust our instincts.” Griffin-Irons reminded the students that keeping an open mind will help them to build their skill sets, because “you learn from each new situation, each new client. Each of your clients will give you something new to add to your tool box.” She reminded them to act as if they owned the stage, even if they didn’t start out feeling that they did, to be in the moment, and to build trust.

The students got the message. Itami, the architect of the lesson, was very pleased with how the session went. “The experience was extremely insightful as to how to better communicate as an attorney," he said, "It was a fun and exciting way to come to a better understanding of how clients, or even other lawyers, interpret visual and oral cues." The day was such a success that Amy M. Gardner, Dean of Students, is thinking of offering improv training to all students in the future.