The Collaborative Leader: Learning from the World of Theatre


Have you ever wondered how a Theatre Director brings together a cast of often high ego actors to deliver an excellent production? A Theatre Director can often be like a new Leader: pulling together a disparate group of people that they may not have had any say in the selection of. Here we look at seven key principles of how a Theatre Director works with a company of actors which apply equally to how a Business Leader works within an organisation.

Theatre is an art form which often relies on a disparate group of people being pulled into shape by an overseeing Director. Sometimes this Director will have had no say in the casting, and just inherits their actors – sometimes they have chosen some or all of their players in their company. Isn’t this just the same for a Leader in a company? You are the equivalent to the Theatre Director.

Company. This is a word as familiar to people in business as it is to those working in theatre. While the difference in the work is great, the essential nature is the same: getting people to work together towards a common goal through co-operation, collaboration and creativity. In theatre a clear path must be set by the Director to enable everyone to realise her/his vision and produce excellent work worthy of a paying audience. Usually in just four weeks. This intense and immediate environment is something people in theatre thrive on and we are experts at getting teams to work together well. And in the shortest possible time.

Who better to ask for the fast-track for bringing a team together than RADA in Business who, drawing on the drama school’s century-old training of the most talented actors and directors, trains Business Executives in Leadership and Communication skills to help them influence their way to the top.

The Importance of Vision

As a Leader having a clear vision is crucially important. But if you can’t share it with those you’re leading you can risk falling flat. Communicating vision in a way that resonates meaningfully for your immediate audience is the job of the Director. In theatre, the ultimate audience is the paying public but during the rehearsal process the Director’s audience is the people assembled who will define the creative process. Being able to articulate for them what the collective purpose is and why it matters to you as leader is vital even though the final product may be nebulous and not yet fully formed.

Dealing with Uncertainty

Any creative process is filled with uncertainty. You might have an idea of what you want something to look and feel like but no idea how you’re going to get there. That’s when you need to rely on the people around you. By creating an atmosphere where people can take risks, make mistakes in an honest and open environment and learn from them is a defining part of a creative process. Uncertainty is actually your best friend in creative times; whether that’s in theatre, in business or in politics. Uncertainty allows people to test out ideas and celebrate the happy accidents that occur. Sure, lots of ideas will be jettisoned; but without doubt there will be many that make their way into the final performance.

Finding Shared Values

Working with people you like and respect is a luxury and not always afforded, no matter what profession you work in. As a Director a large part of your job is to bring people on board with your vision and also align them with each other. Directors will spend several intense weeks rehearsing a production and then leave the actors to get on with performing the play night after night without them. Only by agreeing on what that the play is trying to communicate can people come on board and align their own values or vision with those of the Director. Of course everyone will have their own response to the material, something that’s really important to stimulate debate, but everyone can appreciate that ultimately they want the same thing. In business, with so many disparate voices this can be a real challenge. In any context however, establishing some core values early on acts as a touchstone and allows for a common purpose and a shared experience.

Creating a Safe Environment

Plays are put together quickly. With only a few weeks to create professional theatrical experiences, a highly functioning team that consists largely of artistic temperaments and diverse talents is a real challenge, and essential. There is a stereotype of a maniacal Director who ‘breaks’ actors; pushing them to their limits to unleash the full potential of their talents. While this may work in a handful of cases the overwhelming majority of successful rehearsal rooms are noted for their freedom and feeling of ‘safety’. In safe environments people can take risks, feel empowered to make mistakes and celebrate in the associated learning. In any professional environment the best work does not emerge from an environment dominated by fear. It is the Leader’s responsibility to create an environment where risk and mistakes are an essential part of the process, celebrated for themselves and the learning they provide.

Staying Flexible

Flexibility is a bit of a business buzz word, but it’s essential to a productive working environment. Having a clear vision that you can articulate is essential, but if you can’t adapt it to the data you receive from others you risk losing the respect and co-operation of those around you. In uncertain times it can be appealing to tighten the grip around the things you are sure of. However, by accepting that others might have equally good or better ideas the sum can be greater than its parts. In theatre-making there really aren’t any answers, just more questions. A key requirement is to keep asking as many questions as possible and responding to the noise that comes back even if that means stepping with trepidation into the unknown.

Maintaining Status

People are programmed to spot weakness. We evolved from animals when weakness could mean the difference between life and death. Most professional environments don’t have stakes that high, but we still spot chinks in people’s armour in the same way. In the rehearsal room a sure fire way to lose your status as a Director is to be underprepared. This is entirely different from being wrong or having a difference of opinion. In professional life you’re always going to find people who are quicker, smarter and sharper than you. But there’s no reason for anyone to better prepared than you. As a Director you have to have done your homework so that when you are challenged, you are able to respond from a calm considered place, not one of panic.

Embodying a Leadership Role

Being a Leader in name is very different to being one in ‘body’. Ideas, energy and enthusiasm are all important aspects of Leadership. But being seen (and I really mean seen) as a Leader is what creates willing and enthusiastic followers. Paying attention to simple but powerful aspects of your impact demonstrates to others how engaged you are with the process. Being mindful of how you use your voice, your body and posture, your breath and your eye contact all indicate to people how much you want to be there. As the Leader you have to demonstrate your desire to be at the vanguard, leading the charge. All these aspects of impact can end up defining how credible people believe you are. You could have the best ideas in the world but if people don’t believe in you, they won’t listen.

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