In the world of improvisational theater, there is an approach actors use that I believe can transform the effectiveness of an executive, or any leader, for that matter. It is called "entering the danger."
In the context of improv, "entering the danger" refers to an actor being willing to engage in and address the most outrageous situation that is taking place during a particular scene.
For instance, if one actor makes a remark that seems particularly ridiculous, a good improv partner will go right to the heart of that comment and milk it for everything it is worth. A less-experienced actor will be intimidated by it, and choose to comment on something less risky.
Ironically, by refusing to shy away from awkward situations, the best improv actors not only diffuse them but also create amazing comedic opportunities where none seemed to exist.
For an executive, "entering the danger" has a similar, though slightly different, meaning. A great leader, like an improv actor, relishes the opportunity to seek out and engage in potentially problematic situations. He will dive right into the middle of a touchy subject, and he'll do it the first moment he gets a chance.
Here is a fictional example, based on very real situations, of how an executive might enter the danger in real life.
During an executive staff meeting, the vice president of marketing announces that members of his field marketing team would like to ride along with sales reps during customer calls to gain a better understanding of how to help them close deals. The head of sales looks confused, and asks why. When the marketing VP explains his rationale, the head of sales shrugs his shoulders and says "I guess that's okay." The marketing VP does his best to mask his disappointment at the response from his sales colleague.
Everyone in the room notices the awkward moment between their colleagues. But rather than speak up, they just sit silently, as if they are hoping that it will quickly pass.
Here is a moment of truth for the CEO. He can either join his staff members in awkward silence, change the subject, or choose to enter the danger. Unfortunately, most leaders choose the easier route, which is avoidance. What they should do is dive right into the issue. This is how it might play out in reality.
Before the moment is lost, the Chief Executive brings the meeting to a screeching halt and puts the issue on the table. "Wait a second. Is there a problem here?" Of course, no one says anything at first. Then, sensing a scolding, the head of sales unconvincingly seeks peace. "No, I think it's fine. I have no problem with it."
But the CEO isn't buying that. And he is not going to leave this subject until the underlying issue has been solved. "Come on now. Your response to the idea was less than enthusiastic. Which is fine, if you have a good reason. Is it that you think the idea is generally a bad one, or do you have a problem with the people in our marketing department in particular?"
The room freezes. This is certainly not a boring meeting. The Sales VP stammers a little, and looks for a graceful exit. "Well, it's just that my guys are so busy. I don't want them spending a lot of time tutoring field marketing people if it means taking time away from selling."
Now the head of marketing looks a little miffed. But he seems determined to avoid getting upset. The CEO will have none of that either. He looks at the head of marketing. "What are you thinking? We need to know."
After a moment of hesitation, he explains that the whole point of the program would be to increase sales, and so there is no way he would allow his people to distract the sales force. He then says, "I kind of resent the insinuation."
The CEO jumps in again. "I certainly hope you resent it. Because this is going to be a big problem if we don't get to the bottom of it right now."
During the next thirty minutes, the entire team talks about historical problems between marketing and sales, and the executives responsible for those organizations explain their concerns.
The tension is beginning to dissipate a little, as though some kind of bubble has been burst. Then the CEO decides to step in again.
"All right. I think we need to move on. But I want to make something very clear. We all have to work together to make our numbers, and that means we have to be honest about what we think works and what doesn't. So, if sales doesn't think that marketing is up to the task, that's fine. But you better come here and speak up. And if marketing doesn't think sales is cooperating, then I certainly hope they call it out."
If that sounds too perfect, too scripted, then I suggest you go back and read the scene again. Nothing the CEO said was particularly subtle, insightful or articulate. He just called the situation as he - and everyone else - saw it.
He entered the danger and probably saved his team and the rest of the company months of political frustration.
But even though this situation actually is very realistic, and not too perfect, it is all too rare. In most situations like this, when a moment of awkwardness occurs among executives, people tend to shrink.
They grit their teeth and pray for a distraction.
We've all done it, and we've all seen it. It is human nature to avoid messy situations. Life can be hard enough as it is.
However, to be a great executive, one must decide that no amount of messiness, and no amount of discomfort or embarrassment is worse than allowing politics or mediocrity to pervade the organizations we lead.
So the next time you witness a moment of awkwardness, take a lesson from improvisational actors and enter that danger.
Be the one on your team to step right into the middle of a tough issue and call it what it is. You will save your organization significant time and money. More importantly, you will inspire others to do the same.