Leader: What’s Your Status?

High status vs low status - what you learn on the improv stage is valuable in business life.I’m a rookie when it comes to improv theatre. Even as a rookie, though, I have already learned a ton. You might be surprised how much of it translates into how I coach and lead. I’ve written before about how the improvised leader is better than you think. In that post, I was focussed on an improv basic called the “rule of agreement” where we focus on saying “yes/and” so we can create together in the moment.

What is status? In different circumstances or different times, you will feel more or less powerful, more or less confident, more or less in control. But ultimately how you feel is private knowledge. Only you can know for certain how powerful or confident you are feeling. But it is also true that we make guesses all the time about how other people might be feeling, and those guesses are often right (just not 100 percent of the time). Status can be thought of as anything you would use to base such a guess on. This time I am focussed on status. High status and low status.

Leaders have status thru the offices they hold, their titles and their awards. The status I mean here though is independent of the social (leadership) status one has. Keith Johnstone, theatre director, playwright and pioneer of theatre sports, describes status as something one does, independent of the social status one has. What does this mean?

At improv class, we did some fun experiments on status. We were asked first to play with low status behaviours. We created improv scenes during which we made sure to touch our face, twirl our hair, have slouchy posture and mumble. Doing these actions on purpose had me feeling like a bumbling idiot. I was giggly and lacking in confidence. It was fun, to be sure, but certainly not very powerful. On the other hand, experimenting with high status behaviours like standing up straight and moving my head very little while making direct eye contact had me feeling in command. It was incredible to witness how different I felt simply by embodying different postures and hand gestures.

Deborah Frances-White is a comedian who regularly delivers business seminars on charisma, diversity and inclusion. In her not to be missed Ted Talk, she shows us several examples of how high and low status behaviours have a huge impact on us and our audience.

So if you’re a leader with a great title, why do you care about the “doing of status”? I would offer that if you don’t care about it, you’ll be unconsciously subject to tiny mannerisms like touching your face too often that a) erode your own confidence without your realizing it and b) erode your people’s confidence in you.

In this fast-moving and complex world, do you really want rubbing your chin to get in the way of you leading effectively?


  1. Kathy Robertson on April 19, 2017 at 12:15 pm

    Hi Lisa, At the Simmons Leaders Conference in Boston this past week, I attended an Improv breakout session lead by Karen Hough. Even though there were 300 people in this breakout session, she was able to engage us all in participating in partnership improv. It was all about building trust and collaborating using YES/AND! Thank you for another insightful blog post!

  2. Angelo Pesce on April 19, 2017 at 3:10 pm

    Hi Lisa. Thanks for sharing. the presentation was not only enjoyable but had much for people to consider as leaders.


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