Needing Direction

What can business leaders learn from directors of plays?

It’s been a while since I’ve directed a play. I miss it. I miss the freedom to be creative, I miss watching something take form, I miss seeing other people create performances around me. I miss realising a vision.

This last point is one that really interests me. Directing a play is about the most immediate and swift creation of a product I can think of.

I’m currently working with a large company who is trying to incorporate the principles of lean start up to their organisation. The Silicon Valley consultant who is leading that work has introduced me to the idea of Sprints as a methodology for product development. It’s pretty far away from how most traditional organisations work and yet, when I apply it to the act of creating a play, these Sprints seem more like a 10k slog than 100 metre sprint. I don’t mean to simplify or undermine the effectiveness of the sprint approach. Apart from anything I don’t know enough about it to speak with authority, but it’s another aspect of my business work that has taken me back to what we do in theatre and how relevant it is to business.

What makes a good play? A pointless question to ask I hear you say. So much of what we like in drama is subjective but I’m not really talking here about interpretations of the output. I’m talking about the process of getting there. What does it take to get a group of maybe 15-20 strangers working together to produce an original interpretation of a play in a matter of four or five weeks? I’d like to run through what I think they are and how these factors can be useful to us as we lead teams and organisations.

Setting the path

I’ve already mentioned the first point: vision. Clear and coherent leadership from a director who can articulate what s/he wants to achieve. This doesn’t necessarily mean knowing exactly how the final product(ion) is going to be reached but rather provides the circumstances whereby people can see what is hoped for and how they might get there.


Climate Change

Next is creating circumstances where people can flourish. A director’s job is not to have all the ideas but to surround themselves with people who can realise, enhance and challenge your vision. This means that you have to create the circumstances whereby people can flourish. For me that is making the environment one where people feel safe to take creative risks in service of the ultimate goal.


Being in Good Company                    

Surrounding yourself with people who are brilliant at what they do seems like an obvious choice. But for some leaders can be a threatening and nerve wracking thing to do. In theatre it’s essential to surround yourself with people who are better than you in their respective fields because it is a collaborative process. Your production will only be as good as the sum of its parts so make sure you trust who you’re working with.



The collective noun for a group of actors is a company. I don’t need to labour the obvious connection to business here but the similarities run deeper than semantics. The Cambridge English Dictionary’s definition of company in reference to actors is a group who “perform together”- I’d add that it’s a group of people work collectively towards a shared goal. Without working together the company doesn’t work. In fact you could go so far as to say that without working together the company it doesn’t exist. If we transpose this into a business context the implications are actually quite significant. Can we say that without collaborative work it would be hard to call it a company at all? Strictly speaking no but from a philosophical perspective it could look very different.


Leading Role

While it is a team venture, the rehearsal process benefits from structure. Knowing who is in charge and who to look to in times of need is very important. For the role of the director that doesn’t meaning ruling with an iron fist, far from it. It means letting people know where the final decision lies when a decision has to be made. Inevitably some people are going to want you to have gone in a different direction but as the director, the buck stops with you.  You have to be able to justify and stand by all of your choices. The only time I’ve really kicked myself when directing is when I’ve allowed other people’s choices to influence mine against my instinct and the choice hasn’t worked out. At least if it’s your bad choice you know you made the choice for the right reasons.


Fight the Good Fight

“Knowing when you’re licked” is a fantastic piece of advice my father gave me, himself a highly successful and well-respected director. It means choosing the fights to fight. You can’t win them all, and probably neither should you. Having the humility to let someone else have their way is liberating and allows you to focus on things that matter more. Creativity is subjective so creating space for others can allow you to find things you didn’t know were there.


Gut Feeling

Trusting your instincts has already been mentioned but it’s perhaps the most important point. Being the leader is a lonely job and nothing quite prepares you for that experience but it also brings extraordinary rewards. Making mistakes is part of the job and you’ll never get everything right. That said, in my experience, it’s far easier to cope with a wrong choice or unexpected outcome if the decision was led by your own instinctive choice. That’s not to say that others’ input isn’t hugely important but when you make a choice, it has to be one that feels right. As the director, while you might get feted for a resounding success, the criticism comes your way pretty quickly if it doesn’t work. The only way I know to handle that is to know that the decisions you made, you made for the right reasons – for you!


Author: Charlie Walker-Wise

Client Director and Tutor at RADA in Business, London. LinkedIn Profile:

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