The great ones all have a knack for improvising. That’s my takeaway after years of being a sports fan. But they don’t routinely improvise; that’s sort of an oxymoron, isn’t it? Inside a game plan that synchronizes and synergizes the efforts of their teammates they make on-the-fly adjustments that bring about extraordinary results.
It figures that someone would snag the characteristics of this success factor and try to make sense of it for us leaders. Most recently, I was challenged by how retired general Stan McChrystal’s book, Team of Teams, described the way military decision-making has needed to transform to meet the threats of new nimble enemies. Earlier books on my shelf that call out this improvisational skill set include Leadership Ensemble and Leadership Jazz.
It seems like I most often experience the fruit of making quick turns when I’m speaking or teaching. On Sunday, for example, as I preached a well-planned sermon with 20 different slides driving toward my focused application of Biblical truth, I felt led to say something in a way I’ve never quite said before: “Be more than you are. Don’t do more than you can.” No slide support for that statement. But the moment it came out of my mouth I knew that I was improvising in a Spirit-led scramble that would be effective. Sure enough, listeners have asked for more from this provocative thought. Unplanned and unrehearsed, it nonetheless hit the mark precisely.
The Holy Spirit certainly could have led me into this same sentence during my preparation. No doubt I would have created an amazing slide (with graphics!) to support such a thought. But he didn’t. And the reality is that God feels no need to meet us exactly inside the preparation and planning windows we’ve allocated for our work. Rather, he wants us to be so attentive to him that we can respond to his in-the-moment leading, offering our musical contribution to the direction he takes so that the world can glory in the sort of amazing jazz only he can generate.
This is not the sort of leadership we want to teach rookies or those not fully mature. Improv is a sophisticated skill set learned after the basics are mastered. But it’s the next stage of growth we should expect from one another as we move from mechanical script-following to trustworthy empowerment and collaboration. We are well positioned to embrace this challenge together.