Last week I attended the annual gathering of conscious capitalists in Chicago. In two days chocked full of great programming around the principles of higher purpose, stakeholder integration, conscious culture and leadership, the most impactful and memorable for me and many fellow attendees was an evening performance by Second City. The program brought to life many of the leadership lessons from their recent book:

YES, AND: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration”

There were several memorable lessons built into the program, including a reminder that leaders need to be open to possibility and need to clearly demonstrate to their people that they “have their back”. This creates an environment ripe for a truly collaborative ensemble performance, a state beyond teamwork where everyone pulls together and no one needs to be the star performer. A whole unit that is greater than the sum of its parts. While these are all important lessons, I was particularly struck when they took a familiar leadership story and gave it an important twist.

Turning A Leadership Parable On Its Head

There is a classic story of leadership vision that goes like this:

A man came upon a construction site where three people were working.  He asked the first, “What are you doing?” and the man replied: “I am laying bricks.” He asked the second, “What are you doing?” and the man replied: “I am building a wall.” As he approached the third, he heard him humming a tune as he worked, and asked, “What are you doing?” The man stood, looked up at the sky, and smiled, “I am building a cathedral!”building photo

The fact that all of the people in this story are men should give you a clue as to how old this business parable is. Despite its lack of gender diversity, I always appreciated the moral of the story- that your mindset and attitude greatly affect the quality of your work. However, the improvisation experts at Second City have a different take:

“Bring a brick, not a cathedral.”

This simple paradox really strikes at the heart of leadership and teamwork. As leaders and contributors to a larger team, we always want to show up prepared to deliver our best performance. However, it is important to show up ready and willing to contribute brick by brick, as opposed to thinking we have to show up with our own cathedral. As leaders, this means we should resist over-directing and micro-managing our people. We hired them for their brick-laying capabilities and we need to trust their judgement as to which bricks need to be laid next.

As a contributor, we need to be flexible ourselves, bringing our own “brick-sized” contribution to the cathedral building effort. If we show up with our demands for what the full-blown cathedral needs to look like, we limit the possibility inherent in our team. We also impose unnecessary hierarchy into our workplace, reducing the chance of experiencing the magic that can happen only with an ensemble performance.

From now on, I am going to challenge myself to see the possibility in everyone and stay open to that possibility. I am going to have the back of my collaborators, and make sure they know it. I am going to bring a brick and not a cathedral so I can play my proper part. For when we focus on others in this way, we free ourselves to enjoy what it feels like to be part of an ensemble performance.