Managing Energy – learning from comedians

kevin bridges

One of the simplest and most powerful tools I’ve learned for leaders is to focus on the “three tenets of leadership”

  • Set (and Hold) the Context
  • Manage the Energy
  • Coach, Don’t Play

Recently one of my brothers came down to London and we watched Kevin Bridges do a comedy show to 3,500 people at one of my favourite venues, the Apollo in Hammersmith.

It was a master class in Managing the Energy, so today I’ll share what I’ve learned from comedians about this, as well as the concept of these three tenets and what they mean for leaders.

To start, I’ll talk about the three tenets of leadership. I’ll then explain a little about Managing the Energy and then share what I’ve learned from Kevin Bridges and others masters of comedy.

When working with leaders, they are often asking me to help them work ON the business rather than, as all too often happens, getting stuck working IN the business. Lots of elements can be and are involved for all of us as humans, so we’ll work through things differently depending on each individual, organisations, situation.

That said, as Stephen Covey said: “the main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing”. In other words focus. So, to those three tenets. Focus on the three of them and it will shift and elevate your leadership significantly.

1 : Set (and hold) the Context

So many ways to look at the word Context. It is the number one tool for leaders (and for coaches).

It is the “WHY” that sits behind WHAT you do and HOW you do it.

For leaders then, it can be the Purpose, the Vision, or drop down a little it can be a Strategic focal point, a Goal or Target. There are infinite levels of Context, a nuance is to operate from a level others can connect to. It has to be in reach and understandable.

Overall, the key here is for you as a leader (of others or of yourself) to set your context and to hold to it as long as it is still relevant.

So, as a leader, the first tenet is to Set (and hold) the Context. Always be looking to see what context the organisation and the people in it are operating from, and if things get out of line, there is where you focus.

2 : Manage the Energy

Taking the context of being a leader of an organisation, one way of looking at this is to pay close attention to where your people are focussed so you can look to allocate people and resources in ways to best be in line with the context you have set.

Organisations are made up of people. Consider each person as a ball of energy. Give them a context and they will all bounce in the same way. Without context, they will all ping around at random.

Now, even when given context, those balls of energy will start to move out of their orderly movement over time. They may get tired, they may get distracted. Your role is to manage energy. Sometimes they may move too fast, too slow, they may risk burning out, they may get into torpor. Again, your role is to manage the energy.

In a moment I’ll talk about that around learnings from comedians, who are masters of managing energy!

3 : Coach, Don’t Play

This one is simple, yet takes discipline, and sometimes the role I play with my clients is to remind them of this with some firmness.

Yesterday I wrote about Sir Alex Ferguson and Eric Cantona. Eric Cantona was one of the greatest players in the history of Manchester United football club, Sir Alex their greatest manager (coach, in more accurate terms).

When it came time for someone to take a penalty kick during the game, Eric Cantona stepped up to take it.

Did Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t run onto the pitch, push Cantona out of the way and say “I’ll do it myself”. Of course not! So, why do so many leaders and managers do exactly that?


Right, we’ve looked at these three tenets, so now to share what I’ve learned from comedians, with two examples.

First, back to Kevin Bridges, who is only 31, yet already has over a decade of top-level experience as a stand-up comedian, hence playing night after night at the 3,600 seat Apollo theatre.

He walked on the stage, and as he was in London and has a strong Scottish answer, right away he started self-effacing stories about his accent. Within no more than thirty seconds, the entire theatre was collapsing in laughter. This built up more and more, to the point where, about five minutes in, my sides aching with mirth, the facilitator and coach in me suddenly thought “he can’t continue at this pace, this is too much to sustain for an hour or more”.

Of course, Kevin Bridges knew this. Just as bands in concert start with some high energy popular numbers, then drop down into less well known or high octane songs before finishing with “show-stoppers”. so Mr Bridges knew what to do. Between about five minutes in and by ten minutes in, he has seamlessly dropped the intensity of his act down a few notches, then over the hour or so he was on stage he was constantly tuning into the audience to raise and lower the energy. He was always attuned to his audience and played us like a master conductor of an orchestra.

A week before I’d gone to see another comedian, Kevin Hart, play at the cavernous O2 amphitheatre. He was good, but not great. He was actually playing for a different audience, as they were recording a special for Netflix. They even had the audience do “canned laughter” that they could record earlier, as well as warning after warning after warning  (at least twenty times, perhaps more!) that we’d be ejected if we so much as touched our phones. All of this meant that the audience was not fully connected to Kevin Hart and he wasn’t fully connected to us.

Kevin Bridges, on the other hand, was great, in fact truly world class. A master in his prime and a key element of his mastery was in Managing the Energy through being deeply connected to his audience.

Now, to close, I reflect on the unique annual festival that is Kilkenomics. Oh, and this year it is on again, November 8-11, tickets can be booked here!

After attending last year’s festival, I wrote a few articles from inspiration there, including: “Did you hear the one about the funny Economist?“, where I wrote about the mastery of energy of the comedians actings as panel moderators, including Colm O’Regan and Andrew Maxwell, masters effortlessly displaying that mastery :

I was irresistibly drawn to this festival for many reasons, a key one being to get a sense for how injecting humour would support learning and shifting of opinions among both the panellists and the audience.

My clear sense was that by shifting energy through laughter, everyone was much more open to new learnings and shifting preconceived biases than would have been the case a typical conference focussed on Economics.

So how did they do it? Well, when I looked at the festival schedule and signed up for about a dozen of the fifty or so panel discussions held in theatres and pubs over the weekend, I wondered where the comedy acts were in this “Economics and Comedy” festival. It was almost all panel discussions.

The answer was simple. Every panel was facilitated by a professional comedian. As I couldn’t be in multiple places at one time (reminder of Hermione Granger in one of those Harry Potter books!), I didn’t get to see all of these comedy cat-herders in action, but I did see both Colm O’Regan and Andrew Maxwell in action several times.

Both of them have different styles, and both also played the role of “let me try to translate this for us simple folk” even though they had researched deeply and were very knowledgeable themselves. I loved both their styles, and look forward to seeing them both next year.

One classic from Colm after several of his panellists had spoken in depth on a doom-laden topic for long minutes. After a quiet and perfect timed pause, he simply said “so.. Armageddon then”. Cue collapse of both audience and panel in laughter PLUS the energy and tone of the panel discussion then elevated right away out of detailed and dense analysis to more incisive points. Win all around ! Deadly! (ie brilliant!)