Barrier-free leadership aims to remove obstacles and create an inclusive environment where all individuals can fully participate, contribute, and thrive. It promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion by recognizing and addressing systemic barriers that prevent certain groups from accessing opportunities or reaching their full potential. It prioritizes proactive measures to ensure everyone’s voices are heard, perspectives are valued, and talents are utilized.


There’s nothing a little improv can’t solve


Leadership requires flexibility, adaptability, solutions-based thinking, and not taking yourself too seriously, at least in the nonprofit, human services industry.  

Recently, Scott Field, co-founder of Third Coast Comedy Club, led a professional development hour with an improv class. The intent was not to teach our team how to improvise, it was to reflect back to them a skill they have already mastered and demonstrate how they can leverage this skill with intention.   

At Friends Life Community, we have an exceptional team who teach, support, and lead individuals with developmental disabilities so they can develop socially, grow personally, and enjoy community as they live life together. No two days are alike. It is impossible to develop an instruction manual to be successful. And it requires a sense of humor. This is living life together – we exist so that the individuals we support and their families don’t have to navigate adulthood alone.  

Yet, even without an instruction manual, our team members are highly effective and successfully support individuals in meeting personal and group goals. As I observe the team and identify how they remove barriers and use creativity to provide this support, I have realized that there is nothing that a little improv can’t solve, and I want them to realize the value of the skill they possess.   

Scott opened our training with three principles of improv:   

  1. Agreement (“Yes, and…”) 
  2. Close listening  
  3. Mistakes are gifts 

*Bonus: Have a punk attitude!



      The concept of Agreement is often equated with giving a simple, “yes” response. Scott reframed Agreement to mean “Yes, and…” to demonstrate a shared understanding of the situation. Each party must accept the reality of what there is to work with and agree to build off that reality.   

      Once everyone is on the same page, we can move forward. There is no time wasted disputing facts because the door is wide open for solutions. While it is important to start with the same understanding, we don’t all have to respond the same way. 

      There is beauty and freedom when the barrier of being wrong is removed. For example, during an improv exercise, someone might walk up to you and say, “My hair is purple.” You might respond by saying, “It looks blue to me.” And the other person might say, “Really, you see it as blue?”   

      If this conversation had started with the question, “What color is my hair?” the parties might have disagreed on the answer. By making statements and accepting what the other says as reality, it creates agreement between the two.  

      Working with adults with developmental disabilities helps us see the world in new ways. The individuals we support experience reality in a different way than many others around them. There may be thirty adults participating in an activity and each one may have a different perspective on that activity. All are correct.  

      Our staff has learned to lead each individual through their own experience while accepting their realities for what they are. This is Agreement.   

      Close Listening


      Close listening is a general awareness; it is visual, auditory, sensory, environmental, and feeling. It requires being fully present.  


      Close listening is not one-sided; it is all-sided.   


      When we interact with others, we often fall into one of two categories: focusing on ourselves or focusing on the other person. How many times do we fail to listen because we are thinking about our response? Those of us supporting others in a nonprofit workplace often experience the other side of this; we are so focused on the other person that we forget to listen to ourselves or see the bigger picture.  


      During the improv exercises, we had to be in the moment and respond to what was right in front of us. My favorite part was not having time to overthink.  


      The opening exercise involved multiple patterns of communication. In our group of 16 people, we created two different word patterns in which each of us participated in a specific order. By the end, we were running through those two patterns over and over, all speaking at the same time as we payed attention to our cues for participation. It was chaos and our leader, Scott, was floored by our success and fluidity.  


      One of our values at FLC is compassionate listening. Our team practices this skill daily, and it was validating to see our team perform this exercise with such ease. We were all dependent upon each other for prompts and there was no way to complete the process without each person playing their role. Trust is what gave us the ability to support each other in this way.  

      Mistakes Are Gifts


      Comedy lives and dies by this principle. Audiences love it when someone goofs up on stage. Along with this is the sub-principle of having a “punk attitude”, as in, having a confident, bring-it-on, attitude that is willing to face any challenge.  


      Leadership requires a combination of “punk” and humility. Leaders carry high levels of responsibility, and it can be intimidating to have lots of people depending upon you. In the past, I felt that little grace existed when leaders made mistakes, so I decided to be more confident in admitting my mistakes, and create a culture where everyone is encouraged to learn from mistakes and turn them into a gift, me included. 


      Scott encouraged us to see the opportunity mistakes present. They might carry a situation in a totally new direction which may be exactly where we need to go and be even better than where we started.  


      Mistakes can cause us to see a project or a problem with new eyes. Mistakes are often unexpected and that can be scary, yet when we engage our “punk attitude” and face risk head-on, the results can be magical. Once we have the humility to admit that a mistake has been made, especially since it is usually no secret, then we can accept our new reality and create something even better.  A foundation of trust is essential to accepting mistakes.


      During our last exercise, we broke into groups and acted as characters in situations given to us by other team members. As an introvert and typically serious Enneagram One, the idea of playing a “giddy surgeon while sewing” in front of my entire team was very intimidating, much more so than running a business on a day-to-day basis. Yet, the safety of being with team members that I trusted in an environment where the groundwork had already been laid to accept mistakes, encourage humor, and enjoy play together allowed me to relax and lean into my inner “punk.”   


      These improv exercises helped us all identify what we love about our workplace and the privilege of being with a team of people we trust each day.   


      Supporting others, whether our clients or fellow team members, can be challenging, exhausting, and full of mistakes. And it can be fun! At the end of the day, there’s nothing a little improv can’t solve. Thank you to Scott Field at Third Coast Comedy for reminding us how to lean into these principles each day.