Letting Go of the Seriousness


My mother was a singer and dancer throughout her formative years, so as I child I was involved in dance classes; encouraged to act in school plays; and learned to play the viola and guitar. When I recently heard Jenny Scheinman, a violinist, talking about how she teaches young classical violinists to improvise, I was mesmerized. She said she can’t really “teach” improvisation, so she coaches new violinists to “let go of the seriousness” (while admitting that her teaching techniques were more therapy than teaching).

As a person who jumped through the hoops of being involved in the arts, the only place I can remember “going off script” was in the acting realm, usually because I, or someone on stage had forgotten their lines. My admiration for those who can wing it is huge. I’ve never been a person who easily lets go of the seriousness.

However, there are wonderful parallels between artistic improvisation and leadership (leadership is an art after all). As you learn to lead, can take classes, hire a coach, read about leadership – yet when it all comes down to it much of your day is spent improvising, which really can’t be learned in the traditional sense. People are messy and unpredictable making a script useless. However, you can learn to settle into some comfort and confidence in your ability to lead when you need to go off script.

How might you get better at improvising the way you lead?

Relax and let go of the seriousness. Play a little and enjoy yourself. I must admit that seeing President Obama singing Sweet Home Chicago was a pleasure. This was true leadership improvisation that allowed us to see a different part of him – a guy who is pretty tight-laced showing us something of his humanity and enjoying himself. I don’t expect that you’ll necessarily bust out in the blues at work, but there is something about seeing a leader let his guard down that is compelling. Look for opportunities to have some fun!

Bypass the fear by learning to watch for and appreciate the unpredictable. Observe how you react, right there, in the moment when surprises happen. You are in a dress rehearsal for bigger things. What might happen if……you stepped right into a moment as the President did? Or if you allowed yourself to admit that don’t know where things are heading instead of having to be the person with all of the answers? Consider your emotional reaction to letting go of the need to know and watch the reaction of those around you.

Reflect on your reactions when things are unplanned, and ask for feedback. As you’re learning to let go of the seriousness, what have others noticed that’s different in the way you lead? Is it effective? What do you need to do more of and less of? Does your improvisation appear genuine?

What have you learned by letting go of the seriousness in your leadership?



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Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.


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