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A Lead of Their Own

Excerpts from the MIT Sloan Magazine

From the Secrets of SIP Week
...SIP classes set aside seats for interested alumni who may choose to participate in back-in-time simulations on the $800 million Jumuna Bridge project in Bangladesh or other highly experiential yet nontraditional offerings, such as the newly created “Improvisation and Influence” taught by consultants Deborah Slobodnik and Daena Giardella.

Based on the premise that great leaders improvise, Giardella— a professional actor, director, and author who has built a long-time career as an organizational consultant and executive coach—says that the skills of improvisation happen to be the same skills that are needed for success and leadership in business, government, and the nonprofit world.

“The more you can adapt and respond … the more persuasive you will be,” says Giardella, who has shared her talents in this area for 25 years with clients such as Citibank, the European Commission, and Hewlett-Packard, to name a few. “Somehow, when it comes to living our lives and improvising, we feel that we are supposed to know how to do that instinctively, but improvisation is a set of skills that can be developed and mastered through practice. I like to say that improvisation is the art of dealing with the unexpected and the science of navigating the unknown.”

In October, Giardella’s group of 15 were faced with the unexpected from the very start of the two-day session: They danced to music that ranged from hip hop to African drumming to Parisian club tunes in a warm-up exercise intended to set any tensions—and egos—at ease before delving into heavier themes of making and accepting offers, team building, employing highstakes listening, and practicing “status” tactics to understand how power dynamics affect the scene.

“At this workshop, everyone immediately jumped in with a spirit of yes,” says Giardella. “I was extremely inspired by the brilliance, openness, and expressiveness of the people in the room … they were extraordinary. MIT Sloan is obviously doing something very cutting edge here.”...

From Building a Better Leader
As a professional actor, director, and author who has also built a long-time career as an organizational consultant and executive coach, Daena Giardella brings a unique perspective to what makes—and what may hinder—an effective leader. In October, Giardella brought her expertise to MIT Sloan as part of the semiannual Sloan Innovation Period (SIP), an intense weeklong event when regular classes are suspended to make way for leadership seminars taught by faculty and industry leaders. In Giardella’s two-day class, 15 MBA candidates learned the art of improvisation and how such skills may be used in the workplace. “What we believe we are, or are not, limits how effective we can be as leaders,” says Giardella. “Improvisation forces you to break out of your habitual roles. You have to be ready to respond with dexterity to the moment. … You have to dare to make an impact in the scene without worrying about looking stupid or seeming silly. Improvisers learn how to manage the ‘inner critic’ voices that chatter in everyone’s head as we go through life. The inner critic might be saying, ‘Stay small, don’t get too big for your britches’ or ‘Give up, you can’t do this.’”

To counterbalance the effect of falling back on whatever internal default setting
one might have—be it the role of the conflict avoider, the initiator, the observer, or the confronter—Giardella challenges participants to shift their internal setting despite what their reflexive instincts might tell them, and do something different. “Great improvisers and great leaders learn to play many roles and be adaptable scene to scene,” she says. “In improvisation … the goal is to make the other person look good and to bring out the
best in the other person. … An improvisation is destroyed if someone is up there
saying, ‘me, me, me.’ The same is true of leadership. Master leaders and master
influencers know how to bring out the best in their teammates.”

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