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Leadership lessons from comedic source

The flexibility and problems-solving techniques of improv comedy are good for fire chiefs

CHICAGO — What can improvisational comedy teach the fire service about leadership? Plenty, according to Donna Aversa.

Aversa, a Tucson-based lawyer and improv comedy graduate, connected the dots between these seemingly disparate disciplines at Fire-Rescue International. The crux of it, she said, is learning to change the typical “no” answer paradigm to a “yes” in a way that moves the fire department along the path of its mission.

Basically, it works like this: in improv comedy, one person says something outrageous and the other person must respond to it with “yes, and ….” In the fire service, the inclination is to respond to far-out requests is with no, Aversa said.

The challenge for fire chiefs, she said, is to figure out how to say yes. That may not come on the first or fifth brain-storming attempt to make “yes” work. But, like improve, with persistence and quality listening, a workable solution will evolve.

The basic five rules of improv comedy that fire chiefs can apply involve saying yes, listening, respecting the opinions of others, keeping it simple and, again, moving the department’s unique story forward.

The first step to saying yes, she said, is identifying the problem and figuring out what it will take to fix it. By example she asked participants what they would always say no to.

One fire officer told her he would never agree to riding a roller coaster. Would $1 million change his mind? It would, but know one had that kind of money to get him on a roller coaster. However, if his young daughter asked him to ride it with her, he would.

That, she said, illustrates the process of setting “no” aside and striving for a workable “yes” solution.

Aversa also advises chief officers to keep the process simple. You don’t have to know all of the answers or be polished when first approached with a problem, she told the group. Just don’t give the wrong answer and find a way to move closer to the vision of the department.

“Look for ways to turn the answer from ‘we can do this or that’ to ‘we an do this and that,’” she said. Hear out every idea, no matter how whacky it may seem at first, she said.