Phronesis: Practical Wisdom for Leaders with Scott Allen

Chris Esparza - Improvisation and Leadership

August 17, 2023 Scott J. Allen Season 1 Episode 189
Phronesis: Practical Wisdom for Leaders with Scott Allen
Chris Esparza - Improvisation and Leadership
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Chris Esparza is a full-time consultant, facilitator, and trainer.  He serves as Vice President for Leadership & Culture at Koppett & Co. This consultancy uses improvisation and storytelling to enhance creativity, connection, leadership, and learning with organizations and companies of all sizes.

Before joining the Koppett team, Chris spent 20 years in higher ed, rounding out that chapter as the Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Leadership Development at the University of Oregon’s School of Law.

Throughout his career, Chris has infused an improvisational mindset in his work and approach to leadership development.  He started his journey learning and performing improv in college as a 4-year member of the Stanford Improvisors.  He currently serves on the Board of Directors for the global Applied Improvisation Network. 

Chris is originally from Los Angeles, but now resides in New Orleans–a city that itself embraces a bit of an improvisational spirit. 

A Quote From this Episode

  • "I think improv is a teaching refreshes our offers a little bit of practice in that uncertain space."

Resources Mentioned in This Episode

About The International Leadership Association (ILA)

  • The ILA was created in 1999 to bring together professionals interested in studying, practicing, and teaching leadership. Plan for ILA's 25th Global Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, October 12-15, 2023.

About The Boler College of Business at John Carroll University

  • Boler offers four MBA programs – 1 Year Flexible, Hybrid, Online, and Professional. Each MBA track offers flexible timelines and various class structure options (online, in-person, hybrid, asynchronous). Boler’s tech core and international study tour opportunities set these MBA programs apart. Rankings highlighted in the intro are taken from CEO Magazine.

The International Studying Leadership Conference

About  Scott J. Allen

My Approach to Hosting

  • The views of my guests do not constitute "truth." Nor do they reflect my personal views in some instances. However, they are views to consider, and I hope they help you clarify your perspective. Nothing can replace your reflection, research, and exploration of the topic.

Note: Voice-to-text transcriptions are about 90% accurate, and conversations-to-text do not always translate perfectly. I include it to provide you with the spirit of the conversation.

Scott Allen  0:04  

Okay everybody, welcome to the Phronesis podcast. Thank you so much for checking in wherever you are in the world. Today, my guest is Chris Esparza and he is a full-time consultant, facilitator, and trainer. He currently serves as vice president for Leadership and Culture at Koppett and Company, a consultancy that uses improvisation and storytelling to enhance creativity, connection, leadership, and learning with organizations and companies of all sizes. Prior to joining the Koppett team, Chris spent 20 years of his career in higher education. Rounding out that chapter as the Director of Diversity, Inclusion, and Leadership Development at the University of Oregon's School of Law. Throughout his career, Chris has infused an improvisational mindset in his work and approach to leadership development. He started his own journey learning and performing improv and college as a four-year member of the Stanford Improvisers. He currently serves on the board of directors for the Global Applied Improvisation Network. Chris is originally from Los Angeles, but now, he resides in New Orleans, a city that itself embraces a bit of an improvisational spirit. Good morning. Thank you so much for being with me. I really, really appreciate it. Improvisational mindset, I love this. I want to go there, Chris, like right out of the gates. But first, what else do listeners need to know about you?


Chris Esparza  1:36  

Well, thank you. They need to know that I'm thrilled to be with you, Scott. Thank you for this invitation. It is so good to be, at least, in conversation with you for this brief moment. So, thank you for that, and hello to everyone listening. Yes, so much there. I have been looking forward to this conversation with you because, Scott, you strike me as somebody who improvises a lot, but I'm curious whether or not you would have identified that about yourself. It's something that I think has appealed to me in all of our conversations. So, definitely want to talk about leadership itself as an improvisational art, and how we bring in an improvisational mindset. But any other things that they should know about me other than I consider California to be home. Maybe we'll get to this, I don't know; I sometimes can be spotted running with a giant speaker. That's a whole nother story, maybe a whole nother conversation about where that comes from. I love tacos and french fries, and those are the things that in my day-to-day really matter. The other stuff it's just kind of official blurbs. Yes. 


Scott Allen  2:46  

I love it. So, improvisational mindset, let's go there for a little bit and kind of maybe then even the intersection of that in leadership. But how do you think about it? Because I do think of myself as someone, probably where I'm at my best, when I'm facilitating a workshop or when I'm in the classroom, when there's interaction with the audience, and we can riff off of one another a little bit. And it's on the fly, it's playful, it's fun, and if there is a superpower that… And I don't mean to be egotistical in that statement, but it helps me connect. 


Chris Esparza  3:25  

Yes, you've already named one of the key principles. I think, for you, and maybe for those listening, which would be to maybe start with an audit of, “Are you improvising, and where in your life might you be improvising?” Scott, I know you're also a parent. Are you improvising as a parent? And so, how many of us are like, “There's no script for this. There's no manual. There's no operating manual for what I'm doing, and it's on the fly, and we're doing the best we can.” And so, I would then follow that up with, “Are you improvising too?” So, how important is that ability to your work, to your life, to your job? How important is it that you can be flexible? How important is it that you can adapt in the classroom to respond to whatever comments students are getting back to, or to just be agile in how you're managing any particular situation? So, once we've asked those questions, then I would follow that with, “So how much time or energy do we typically spend developing that superpower you just named?” How much time or energy do we actually spend in the practice of getting better at that, or have we just allowed it to just show up, and I don’t know, just sort of figure it out as we go? And so, I think that's where this improvisational mindset comes in, which is maybe an invitation to bring some intentionality to that practice. We at Koppett, the great folks that I work with there, talk about improv as a gym, if you will, which is where we get to just lift the weights and flex those muscles a little bit to get better. I know you had a previous guest because we both consider him a friend and colleague, Dave Rosch. Early in one of the early, early podcasts, I listened to him, and he talked about the importance of having and developing mental agility for leadership development. So, this idea that to thrive in a context of uncertainty, which is the norm these days, we need a lot of mental flexibility, a lot of reserves of emotional balance and emotional intelligence, and letting go of our expectations for how this should go, or how it's supposed to go, or just to be a little bit more at ease with the unknown and the unknowable. And it's hard, I don't want to say that any of this is easy; I think it's… To accept that we can't control everything is really hard for some of us, but we're going to go there anyway. You walk into a classroom, and you've prepared, but to let go of some control by sort of giving it back to the students is a bit of a risk. The courage to walk into that class can be daunting, especially if it's a new classroom or a new group, and we rely on our preparation to see us through. But all of that is a bit of the work that it takes to build that muscle. So, the mindset really is what allows us to let go of some of our knowing or some of our certainty in favor of more noticing. So, I would maybe distinguish the difference between knowing and noticing and then responding effectively to whatever emerges in that particular moment.


Scott Allen  6:36  

Would you go a little bit more in-depth into knowing versus noticing? Because I absolutely love that. And you used the word that longtime listeners will know that I absolutely love as well, but we're intentionally building this skill. We're intentionally focusing on this a little bit so that when we get into those moments, we're better prepared to, as you just described, in some ways, kind of let go of that need for control or everything to go as we have planned, because rarely does that happen.


Chris Esparza  7:08  

Yeah, rarely does it happen. And I think that's interesting around… The other distinction there is the difference between preparation and planning. And this may be nuanced that that is unnecessary, but, in my mind, it helps to organize it. Being improvisational doesn't mean you don't prepare; it doesn't mean just sort of thinking on the fly. It comes with lots of preparation, but the distinction of planning is, oh, in this minute, this will be said; in that minute, this will happen because that's what we have less control of. So, there are a couple of core elements that I pull in from improv and that we often use in our work when we're doing consulting, teaching, and training. Maybe the three that come to mind most readily are this idea of observation, relationship, and play. Observation one is noticing. So, coming back to your question about the difference between knowing and the noticing. For those familiar with improv, you might recognize that we say, “We noticed the offers,” which is simply about paying attention, about being present. The muscle of listening is really a muscle of noticing. So, the improviser's art or skill is an art of noticing and responding as opposed to knowing, which is a sense of fixed knowledge of, “I'm filled, I’m full, this is all there is to know,” it's about what else is there? Before I think, we started this conversation, you and I were checking in and I was asking about how it's going just running this podcast, but you talked about the sense of learning, that, “I'm constantly in a learning stance as I interview folks.” You're exposed to so many different ways of thinking about leadership. And so, I imagine that is you in this practice of noticing, and then, responding to whatever you're getting. So, if we think about day-to-day, we take in an extraordinary amount of information that we ignore. Our brains are just sort of in a way that we can only pay attention to so much, and so, there's a lot there for us to notice. The misconception is that improvisers, the people who perform on stage theatrically or musically, that we think of them as quick thinkers, and that we train to become faster and faster. And a related misconception is that improvisers are trained to think of things out of nothing, but it's somewhat different than that. It's maybe even the opposite, which is that improvisers learn to follow what's already there, to use what's already in front of them, what's already been established. And so, that takes me back to the skill of noticing and responding. And absolutely think of it as a leadership skill. That I think, sometimes, those of us who occupy a formal role of leadership put a lot of pressure on ourselves to know, I must know everything, or I must know enough to be in this position. But really, I think we need to shift into What do I need to notice? And we are uniquely positioned in those roles to be able to notice more, to be able to respond to what we're seeing. And I think that's quite a critical skill.


Scott Allen  10:19  

Well, I love that because, at times, when I'm working with leaders, I think some people have the concept of leadership to what you're saying right now, or, “I'm the person in authority, I have to know everything.” And, at times, I try and push back on that notion and say, “Look, sometimes the greatest leaders have the best questions.” They're noticing some themes happening in the environment; they're noticing some gaps in where we want to be and where we currently are. What questions do we need to bring to the team? What am I seeing? What am I noticing? And then, it's not necessarily for me to have all of the answers, but me identifying and noticing, “What are the questions we need to be working on?” That's a skill as a leader. I really believe that.


Chris Esparza  11:05  

Huge. I would offer a parallel skill there, which still falls under the noticing category of observation, which is, are we able to notice the gifts hidden within mistakes? There are a lot of different ways that improv talks about this. Sometimes we talk about celebrating failure or accepting mistakes, and there are different ways, but improv has a unique way of treating mistakes. And that is to treat them as offers, we say. So, what that really translates is that we look for the possibility in unlikely or unexpected places. And so, the art of improvisation itself is about how we create in the moment and revise, and revise, and revise. And so, some of what you're saying around asking questions, really, is also this iterative process and about how we can continue to revise till we get closer to whatever we need to get closer to. So, the idea of celebrating failure in improv is that we learn to welcome change or failure because we believe there's something teachable or learnable in that. That one of the biggest threats to noticing the offers that are all around us is our fear of failure, particularly in any sort of creative endeavor. That I'm not ready or willing to try because I think I'm going to screw it up. So, improv gives us a way of how do we treat mistakes as possibilities. It's really just an attempt to deflate the power of failure so that we may be a little bit more courageous or take a few risks. And, of course, that's not to suggest that every failure is to be celebrated, but essentially, in improv, it means that I know I'm going to slip up sometimes, I'm going to fall flat on my face, I'm going to get on that stage and I'm just going to blow it, but, you know what? I'm all in. I'm still going in. And so, I wonder how that shows up even in teaching or parenting. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that around, like, that I'm going to mess this up, and yet, I'm all in. We're going to do it anyway. We're going to give it a try. So, there's something beautiful about that celebration of, like, this isn't about being perfect, it's about noticing, observing, asking questions, getting creative, but maybe, instead of being worried about making mistakes, say, in that mistake, I'm going to learn something, I'm going to grow, and we can use it somehow, we can bounce back and become wiser together.


Scott Allen  13:25  

Well, what you're saying completely resonates with parenting because I think, at least, as my wife and I, we have an incident, an event, or an observation, something we've noticed. We have a habit of walking; we walk a lot. And oftentimes, on those walks, we'll brainstorm, we'll think, we'll say, “You know what, what are the options here? How do we move forward? How do we proceed?” And we also have a shared agreement that what we decide likely may not work, it may not work. And there might be failure in this experiment that we're running right now, to go to kind of a little bit of a Heifetz adaptive leadership, there will be a failure in experimentation. And so, we aren't holding ourselves to the perfect answer; we're holding ourselves to what's the next best option given these set of circumstances that we're in. So, that's how I see it kind of connecting, at least, to what you just said. It's this iterative never-ending… (Laughs)


Chris Esparza  14:31  

Yeah. Well, and you just brought up the, maybe, second element that I framed at the beginning. So observation, relationship, and play, and this idea of relationship. And so, improv is very much about the ensemble. As I came to learn about improv, that was a key part of my own learning. I first started the practice of improv and improvisational theater in high school, and then in college, did four years in college around improv. And one of the things that really resonated for me was the second piece about how to be an ensemble together. In improv, we say the importance of being other-focused or making your partner look good. And so, what I loved about that is it shifts the focus away from me a bit and onto my team, onto my partner. And so, I think the reason why improv, if you've ever been to an improv show, at least, my experience of improv in a troupe or ensemble, what makes it so special is the way people treat each other. It's about generosity; it's about care. There are folks who, before they go on stage, they go around, and they'll say, “I got your back, I got your back, I got your back” and reinforce, like, “I'm there for you.” And with that, in the day-to-day life of an improvisational mindset, it's that we give our time and attention to others. So, I love this walk that you just described with your partner, which is that it's time and attention with each other. And yes, there's a physical element to it, but we're also in conversation, and reinforcing our connection. And so, I think about, in improv, it can feel risky, it can feel dangerous, maybe like teaching, or maybe like parenting or just leading as a broad concept. And so, we need relationships; we need people; we need colleagues that we can trust. And that trust begins with expressing a desire to be in this mutually respectful and generative relationship. I remember this opportunity to do a five-week intensive improv course in Chicago several years ago, and one of the directors of the theater had come on stage as a welcome and introduction. And one of the things she said right out the gate was that we're all artists, poets, and geniuses here. That's our mantra. And it was just this beautiful sort of shift into, like, what if I started with that assumption? A room of 150 people from all over the world is here to learn some improv, but she has just said that, in this room, we are all artists, poets, and geniuses. Think about how we show up for one another if that's the mindset I come in. And so, I thought it was a beautiful invitation, like, everyone here has got something amazing about them, my job is to then make a connection and try to figure out what that is, learn about them, be curious, ask questions, and whatnot. And so, coming back to the noticing and the failure pieces, I think where that relates here is sometimes the enemies of the ensemble, if you will, the sort of things that maybe disrupt our ability to build those connections is my need to be right, my need to be the focus of everything, my need to appear like I'm in control, again, back to that leader as authority, or even especially when the evidence is otherwise like, “No, but it's still…” And so, all of those kinds of break apart our ability to be connected. And so, how do we go about building an environment where the group's goals trump the individual's goals, where there's enough credit to go around for everybody? And where we can be candid with each other, we can be honest with each other? I think about it looks like just bringing people in, how do we do world building together, how we search for shared understanding, shared purpose, all those things that we talked about in leadership and generating ideas, and finding a way forward together?


Scott Allen  18:15  

Well, a couple of times, on the podcast, I've had a guest, her name is Sharna Fabiano, and Sharna is… She's written extensively about followership, but she's also a tango dancer. And she talks about how, in that relationship, there are some fairly clear kind of norms and ways of being, and this role clarity exists. And it sounds like what you're saying is, at least, maybe in the Stanford improvisers, we would have had some norms as to how we were going to engage. None of us are going to be trying to be the star; I've got your back. Whatever those five or six norms are, we have a way of how we are going to exist with one another. And it's clear, and it's stated, and it's our way of being, right?


Chris Esparza  19:03  

Yeah. I really appreciate that. It is absolutely true, and I think that's what I learned. It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but I mentioned learning improv initially in high school. And it was great. There was a lot of value I got from it. So, I was thrilled to learn that improv existed in college, like, “Wait,  my college is important, and I can do improv.” But I credit my old mentor and teacher from that era, Patricia Ryan Madson, who really got us to think about improv as more than just performance art, but really these lessons that you're talking about because I think it was principle-based. So, it was about, for the individual, building confidence and being able to trust our own voice. With the ensemble, these principles about how do we become easy to work with? How can I be a player that others look forward to playing with? Which is a bit of a principle-based approach; how can I be supportive of others and their ideas? Making that partner look good, or in any particular scene or endeavor, my role is to look for what's needed. If we're on stage performing, and a scene is happening, what is needed in that moment? Sometimes what's needed is for me to walk on stage and offer something that's missing. Sometimes what's needed is to get out of the way and let whatever beautiful thing is happening happen. I'm not always needed on stage, or I don't always need to get up and, like, say a line. Maybe they're talking about a chair or a box, and maybe I need to go be the box. And so, this idea that’s a principle about how do we build on what's there and offer what's needed? How do we build stories together, build on each other's contributions? And again, doing what's best for the group? And so, those were all principles that were named, and, I think, even grounded, I would say, in values. Like, what I take from improv is also a set of core values, which is generosity. Recognize that we all may stumble and fall, but how do I listen generously? How do I give generously? Kindness. How do we take care of each other? If we're, again, a troupe, or ensemble going out on stage together, I got your back. Like, how do we take care of each other? How do we step up for each other? I flub a line, and my partner's there to kind of swoop in and cover for me. It's such a beautiful feeling. And really, the one we don't often, maybe don't talk about enough in the larger realm of things is that there is a value of joy and love, and the connection about our strength is our ability to give and receive that joy and that love, which I think we find through our connection. And so, improv is playful, which would be the third thing that I mentioned. That there's a sense of play in what we're doing together, and possibility, and creation, and that creative act, which I say, I think people might recognize this that shows up sometimes in that ‘yes,’ and principle that people are often familiar with. We say 'yes.' We create agency for ourselves; we accept offers, we contribute our own ideas. Teamwork is essentially our ability and willingness to accept and build on each other's ideas. To be in an active collaboration, and that we're each responsible for chipping in and building. And so, again, leadership here is that not only does everyone have an opportunity to lead, but I would say, in the ensemble frame, but if the group is to fulfill its potential, then, in some ways, everyone has an obligation to lead when required. It will require something different at different times. And so, we kind of ‘yes,’ and with each other to build on that with each other. And so, looking at leadership from this improvisers mindset is that, if leadership is lacking, the uncomfortable question here is, if leadership is lacking, it means I've got to look at myself and do something about it rather than lamenting the shortcomings of, “Gosh, why isn't Scott stepping up right now?” In improv, it's like, “Well, if Scott isn't there, then that's me. I'm the one that needs to jump in.” And we learned to do that in a fluid way that doesn't sort of point fingers, and say, like, “I take responsibility for the group's success,” rather than, “Well, Scott's in charge of this conversation, why is he…” Like, “No, no, let me jump in, let me help out, let me see…” Back to, “Let’s experiment with something. Let me try this and see if that gets us where we need to go.”


Scott Allen  23:20  

Yes, yes. And if I'm noticing, and if we have a relationship and some norms, then that becomes an option that becomes an obligation, I would imagine, in a lot of ways for some teams. And so, talk a little bit more about this kind of playfulness, because I imagine, in those moments where, because the team has these norms, and maybe we have some experiences, and we're being generous with one another, and trying to help others shine, and we're having fun, well, of course, the audience, from an emotional contagion standpoint, that's going to translate to them, and they're going to be having an experience that is enjoyable, life-giving, affirming, etc., right?


Chris Esparza  24:05  

Yes. All of that. I think that there are a lot of ways in which we experience play, and some of that is in the… I think sometimes, when you think about performing improv, the joy an audience has is sometimes not simply out of like humor or a joke. In fact, what I appreciated about my own journey through improv was learning that it was less about trying to make the one-liner or being clever about a joke. In fact, we were taught, I remember, one of the other mantras was ‘dare to be dole,’ which really was about daring to say the obvious. Again, use what's there rather than trying to be clever and invent some just ridiculous thing, and see if that catches. And I think there's a sense of play in stating the obvious sometimes, noticing the obvious things, saying the obvious things that, for an audience, it becomes recognition. The sense of like, “Oh, this is fun because I recognize myself and what's happening here. I can relate or I can see it too.” That sort of shared discovery of like, “Look, we all can see the same thing,” or, “We all found the same thing.” This is a separate interest of mine, I don't know if you're familiar with geocaching. 


Scott Allen  25:24  

I’ve heard of geocaching. Yes.


Chris Esparza  25:24  

Essentially, for those that don't know, it's worldwide. It's essentially a global scavenger hunt if you will. So there are these little caches that are sometimes in boxes, or little cylinders, that are hidden all around the world. And there's an app you can download that helps you figure out. Usually, most people use their phones because we've got GPS, to find where these things are. But there's likely one in your neighborhood if not many and hundreds. And what I love about that, I've had the chance to do it at times with friends, is there's something about the hunt together. And then, the playfulness of discovery, which is that, like, “We found it. Hey, guys, everyone, come on.” And there's just this fun, there's a sense of play in that, that we've arrived together somewhere, we have discovered something together. And I think improv can do that because things become revealed that weren't necessarily coming out of left field, but are right there in front of us. But the fact that we arrived there together becomes itself this kind of way that we are in play with each other, where we're able to let go of some of the other titles, or hats, or whatnot. But we're present; we're in this exchange, we’re there voluntarily, we are free to laugh, we are free to just connect and just discover what's right there. And so, I think improv has a way of doing that. And I think, as a leadership lesson, it's how I might be a guide in that journey as well. How can I be a guide for us to figure out what play looks like here? Certainly, there are contexts where play may look like a different thing. It can be played in conversation, it can be literal play, games, and whatnot that gives us, sometimes, the rules for how we want to engage. I think there are lots of games, which actually, are quite useful in that they give us this sort of small little bit of structure in order to experiment within. I think that's the value of play when we think about children is that they have these little structures with some fairly simple rules, but it allows them to experiment, try on some new behaviors, and maybe stretch themselves a little bit. And so, there's something beautiful about how can we do that even in our adult selves, as a form of adult learning. How do we engage in play? Which is why, I think, for Koppett, the group that I work with, the work that we do, I, in part, love it so much because it offers a chance for folks to play, and to try on some new behaviors, or trying some new skills, or flex that right. And so, there's value in… As much as I think about the improviser's mindset, I think improv is a teaching tool, in some ways, it refreshes our attention. It stretches us around this idea of uncertainty and offers a little bit of practice in that uncertain space; it gives us the willingness to feel a little insecure, a little risk, and like, “What are you going to ask me to do, Chris?” I think about, again, practicing leadership skills in lower settings, I think about the competition stuff that I know you do, like in this beautiful way in which we're giving students a way to practice. And so, I think that, for me, is a form of play. I don't know if the students see it that way…


Scott Allen  28:34  

No, for sure, they do.


Chris Esparza  28:35

But I think there's just a way to play on that. 


Scott Allen  28:36  

Yeah. For sure, they do. I think we talked about it a little bit. I think you're referring to the collegiate leadership competition. We go with them as a simulator; this is a simulator, but, in some ways, those teams are given… They don't know what's coming. A 45-minute task is plopped in their digital lap, and they have to now go. And, a lot of that is, in some ways, what we've just discussed. Are you noticing what the gaps are and what the team has right now? Do we have clear roles? Do we have a shared sense of who's going to do what? And I just had a debrief with my team yesterday because it was last weekend, and they said, “That was a lot of fun. That was a good time. I didn't think it was going to be, I thought it was going to be kind of nerdy, but it was fun. I had a good time.” So I said to my students, “What does that say about you? Are you a nerd?”




Chris Esparza  29:29  

Welcome it. I welcome. Yes, nerd nation. Yeah. So, again, I love that, because, again, that's just another form of play. We get immersed in a world and it allows us to play, and practice, and we find new ways of connecting. It could be simply connecting with ourselves. We find some new ways of maybe communicating with other people; we find new ways of creating something that we didn't know we could create or know was possible. And so, all the more when people are laughing, I think there's just so much that we gain from that. It makes me think about when I… One of my college application essays was about, “Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?” And I think back, I'd love to reread it, it's been a while. But what I remember for it is, I envisioned traveling around the world, spreading some sort of message of peace through laughter. Now, again, I wasn't necessarily trying to audition to be a guru of any sort at all, but it was something about the laughter piece. I think what I had done, was inspired by some reading about the mind-body connection at the time; there's a book out by Bill Moyers, I think, had edited or authored a book around this connection to mind-body, and how much healing is possible when we can find ourselves in the space of being a laugh with others, and be in the space. Really, I think that was about play, and joy, and that idea of, there's something unique that can happen when we're connecting in that way. We're maybe a bit more relaxed, at ease, and maybe more vulnerable as well. And so, that has resonated for me ever since that essay, which is the value of play, and it’s a core value of mine. To find ways to play. At the beginning, I talked about one of the things you should know about me that is maybe not in my resume is that I run with a giant speaker. And it is one way that I play, music, and dancing, and inspiring...The funny thing is, I've run a marathon, half marathon, 10k with the speaker, and I love catching people, which is I've got music going, it's loud, and, at times, obnoxious, but I try to play music that is going to be all play. Like, what are things that everyone loves? And so, I catch people because I catch them like running up ahead. And then, you just see them wiggle, you see them do a little thing, or you see their hands pop up on the beat. And you're like, “Ah, gotcha.” And it is my secret moment of playing with people. And many folks come up and say how much they enjoy it. But again, like all these, how do we find opportunities to play and be in play with each other? And again, improv has been huge for that, but there are lots of ways we can do that too.


Scott Allen  32:11  

Chris, I imagine you come across… At times, I imagine this concept of improv is closely associated with something like charisma. And you have people who don't identify as extroverted, or identify as charismatic, or identify as funny; how do you answer that? And then, we'll begin to wind down our time together. But how do you think about that? I'm sure you've seen people of every ilk be very successful in this.


Chris Esparza  32:42  

Absolutely. Yeah, it's a great question. I appreciate that because I do think, when I walk in and say improv, for some, they're excited, “Tell me more, can I try?” And others were absolutely terrified. Like, “Oh, hell no. Get out of here.” And I think it's this idea that, I think, we have some conceptions. We've seen maybe improv on TV, and that is certainly a [Inaudible 33:07] or a brand of improv. So, I go back to the question that we talked about at the beginning, where in your life are you improvising? And where do you [Inaudible 33:52] show up without a script? And does that feel important? Does that feel relevant? Does it seem like an important ability in your job? So, I would argue every one of us is improvising starting from the beginning of your day when you put on your shoes. There's no scripted agenda for how the day's going to go. You have some ideas, but so much of what we encounter is improvised, and yet, we respond in that moment. So, I do think it's something we all naturally do. The art and the practice of it is really to bring some intentionality, and thinking about how we might actually get better at observing, and noticing. How do we get better at building connections on the spot, in the moment? And how do we get better at learning to play with ourselves, with each other, and as a whole? And so, that, for me, is that you are already improvising whether you identify or realize it or not. Let's look at how we bring some practice to it, how we bring some intentionality, leadership. And I love that you mentioned earlier Heifetz's work because I think that model aligns well here with this idea of being in adaptive work. And then, the intentionality of how do we practice that? That we are less and less in places where everything goes as planned. We are less and less in a world… The uncertainty is no longer a bug; it's a feature of the world we live in. And so, we are all being asked to improvise on a regular basis, and moment to moment, day to day. And thinking about improv, I think offers a few simple ideas like listening, and seeing things as offers, which may not themselves be very grand, but I do think they go to the very heart of leadership. And that the difficulty comes in practice and over time. And so, we focus our energy on these simple behaviors, these mindsets, or these principles, and then it increases our capacity over time to respond creatively, and effectively, especially in the context of change. So, anybody, back to your original question there, if you've ever been in a deep meaningful conversation with a friend, that was likely an improvised conversation. There is no script to it. If you've ever gone to watch a jazz ensemble music, musicians are often improvising. If you watch basketball, part of what I love about the sport of basketball is how much improvisation. Yes, there are plays in soccer as well, but there's a fluid nature that is really being improvised as it comes from the team practicing and practicing. And so, I think that improv invites us to think about how we might relate to each other better, how we might create this ensemble as we're talking about in all of our endeavors. Again, back to parenting, families, and teaching. And so, I see it showing up in lots of places. And the work we do is… The key applications that we do at Koppett are around leadership, communication, and creativity. But really, I think it goes even beyond that.


Scott Allen  36:54  

Well, Chris, I have great respect. I love the conversation. So much fun, so many wonderful parallels to leadership, parenting, and life in so many different ways. So, I'm going to put information about you so that people can reach out, people can connect, people can learn more; that'll all be in the show notes. And, as I close out with you today, I always ask guests what they've been listening to, streaming, or reading, or just what's caught their attention in recent times. And it could have something to do with what we've just discussed. It may have nothing to do with what we've discussed. But what's been on your radar recently that listeners might be interested in?


Chris Esparza  37:34  

I appreciate that. I have to come out with the, maybe, obvious to me is Ted Lasso season is out right now, the latest season three. And that show actually reflects a lot of what I think we've been talking about. I think others have certainly spoken about the leadership lessons from that show, but I think about how that show very much exemplifies what we pay attention to. What are we noticing? How connection is just critical to our success and play. And the idea of, like, how do we experience joy, whether it be in biscuits every morning, or just fun little bits that happen among the characters. So, that show gives me joy, but I think there's also a lot of kindness and generosity, as I mentioned, and those values, those core values are also reflected in what love might look like in a professional football team, which I celebrate the show for highlighting so, that one's near and dear to me. And, as I mentioned, running with the speaker, I'm always listening, trying to look for new music that… What do they call them? Dance floor fillers because those are the ones that I try to play when I'm running with a giant speaker. It's good times.


Scott Allen  38:47  

(Laughs) We are watching Ted Lasso as well as a family. And it's a great show. It's a great show. And a lot of good lessons in there. A lot of good lessons. Sir, you'll come back. We'll continue the dialogue. I'm so thankful to connect with you. So appreciative of your great work and the connections you're making. And you know what? Be well, take care. Thank you so much.


Chris Esparza  39:14  

Thank you, Scott. It's been a lot of fun, and I look forward to coming back. And certainly look forward to people bringing stories about how they're improvising, because we're all doing it.


Scott Allen  39:24  

We're all doing it. Love it. Love it. Okay. Thank you, sir.


Chris Esparza  39:29  

Thank you, Scott.



[End Of Audio]




Improvisational Mindset in Leadership
Importance of Noticing, Responding, Collaboration
The Playfulness and Leadership of Improv
Geocaching and Playful Improv Nature
Improvisation and Play in Leadership
Leadership and Improvisation