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by Michael Santarcangelo

Improve your security leadership with one simple lesson from improv

Aug 10, 20115 mins
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

Leading from the front is a regular series from Michael Santarcangelo that shares practical tips, insights and solutions focused on security leadership, security awareness and effective communication. In this article, he reveals how theatre improv techniques can be applied to security leadership

“Your job is to make your partner look like a rock star.”

A basic concept for those who study and perform improv, this advice is key to successful security leadership and the advancement of individual careers in security.

[Related: Security leadership with 3 “Roadhouse” rules]

Improv, called ‘theatre sports,’ is played as a series of games. Effective players learn — and routinely practice — some basic rules to create the foundation for success. Improv is not designed to be a one-person show; successful improv requires one or more partners playing by similar rules to be entertaining.

Many think the role of the improv player is to “be funny.” And while “funny happens,” the job of the player is different: make your partner look like a rock star.

The wisdom of this directive is that your partner(s) have the same goal —to make you look like a rock star.

Security is the same way.

Effective security leadership sets the conditions by which the “players” focus on making each other look like rock stars.

In the process, individuals contribute their best to those around them. This makes it easier for their partner to shine, to be successful and to be helpful. In return, the balance of the team is doing the same. Executed properly, it leads to a situation where everyone wins, and nobody has to lose.

Experience and focus lifts everyone

When two new players take the stage, so much goes through the mind that remembering to make your partner look like a rock star fades into distant memory. Plus, the opportunity to grab and execute a laugh line sometimes takes over.

Security feels the same way: the pace, the pressure and the opportunity to demonstrate success — even at someone else’s expense —sometimes takes over.

In both cases, it is easy to want to make others look like rock stars while forgetting to put the concept to practice. It takes strong leadership and regular application to make it happen.

In improv, working with veteran players is a different experience: they make it easy to be funny. They always seem to deliver a perfect setup, ripe for the taking. They laugh when you’re funny, step in when you’re not. It’s hard to look bad when playing with a partner determined to make you look like a rock star.

These experienced partners set the example due to their regular, focused practice of making others look good. As more members gain this ability, the positive results of elevating others becomes the new norm for the entire team.

Eventually, returning the favor is easier to focus on, and everyone —including the audience (business) — benefits.

Reconsidering partners

Because of different players, audiences and games, no two improv shows are the same. And yet every successful show has players focused on making their partners look like rock stars.

In security we have multiple partners in the course of a day, a project and especially a career. Often our partners are our immediate teammates, but a broader view of partners is an opportunity to provide more benefit. What happens when consultants, colleagues and even clients are partnered with us on an effort?

In each case, our job is to provide the insights, support and material to make sure each looks like the rock star.

As in improv, our responsibility is to make the information relevant, connected and presented in a way that sets them up for success. And when things falter, the opportunity shifts to stepping in and smoothing things over.

In all cases, the focus is on their success, not our personal gain.

The keys, and rewards, of being a strong player

In improv, by always making sure they put the needs of their partner first, everyone wants to play with the strong players. They gain success without the need to hog the stage, grandstand or step on top of others’ lines to be funnier themselves.

As security professionals, applying this approach means becoming the go-to person everyone wants on their team. After all, working with someone that always makes you look better is a good thing.

Strong leaders create the conditions for successful careers

Security leaders need to set the example and foster a culture where making others look like rock stars is the imperative. It requires regular practice, coaching and highlighting positive examples.

Even with regular practice, sometimes it just doesn’t work and someone else comes into to take the credit.

When that happens on stage, the other players and even the audience see what happened. This means that in the event it feels like making someone else look like a rock star doesn’t work, the actual positive outcomes might be a bit harder to see.

Keep practicing and stay focused on the success of others and the rewards come more easily.

To have a successful career in security or build an effective security team, simply consider your partners and ask, honestly, “have I made them look like rock stars today?”

About Michael SantarcangeloAuthor of Into the Breach, Michael Santarcangelo is the founder of Security Catalyst, a practice devoted to harnessing the human side of security. Michael offers keynote presentations, seminars and consulting on security awareness, effective communication of security, security career management for teams and support for security leadership. Learn more at or engage with Michael on twitter (@catalyst).