Using the Arts to Train Leaders

I recently reviewed a wonderful professional production of URINETOWN THE MUSICAL and then later came home to The Tony Awards Show. (Ironically, the musical is a satire on corporations and government, taking advantage of the people, and multitude of other things not necessary to go into here.) In spite of the subject matter, the experience reminded me of something I see every day that pertains to training and to business. First, theatre is a business. Second, actors and other performers use the same skill set as business leaders. “Whaaat!” you say. The following quote may help to summarize what I mean:

The same set of skills that actors rely on to deliver a riveting performance can be found in our most innovative and successful business leaders. Actors must speak with presence, with passion, and intention. Great leaders in all fields rally our emotions, our allegiances, and our commitment in just that fashion.
—Susan V. Booth, Jennings Hertz Artistic Director of the Alliance Theatre

So, how do they get there? I wrote a similar blog on Why Isn’t All Training Like Training for Your Black Belt? that changes our approach to how we look at training and leadership as a whole. It is similar in that what theatre does to put on a show requires the employees sharing the same vision, dedication, cooperation and leadership is very nearly the same as leading the company. What does this have to do with training. It means our training charter can change.

Kevin Daum represents the business side of things, and his latest blog article, 4 Great Leadership Lessons From The Arts, gave me this idea for training based on his four points. Kevin published a journal article, Entrepreneurs: The Artists of the Business World, which makes sense since Kevin has an arts background along with more than 15 percent of entrepreneurs, making more than a million dollars a year, who belong to the elite Entrepreneur’s Organization. By the way that million dollars is the minimum requirement for membership in that organization. As Kevin says, that 15 percent “must be doing something right.”

Here’s what Kevin say’s theatre or any other performing arts leaders do and not-so-remarkable business leaders do not (the comments underneath Kevin’s points are mine):

  • Lead a Project from Start to Finish
    • I’m developing and directing a play to performance, which means not one plan but several plans to start with and see to through fruition.
  • Manage Dynamic People Effectively
    • I’m holding auditions, hiring technical and design staff and making sure all work together while I am directing a play, and making sure this cooperation will continue during the performance phase.
  • Ensure Total Accountability
    • I’m directing a play, responsible for the quality of opening night to the audience, to the board members of the theatre, to the funding sources, and accountable that my employees do not have to work under stressful conditions.
  • Implement Big Picture Thinking
    • I’m directing a play and believe I have a unique vision to make the play stronger in the eyes of today’s audience than when it was originally presented, and I have to sell everyone on this vision or it will not work.

Since I come from a theatre arts background like Kevin, I’ll be using theatre examples as above. Let me try to expand on each area and, also, I am familiar with business leaders (one-on-one as a speech coach), developed and provided leadership training, as well as my 30 years in government service (including as military officer) to provide added perception in those areas. Many of you are familiar with my own blog, What Would a Cave Man DO or How We Learned What We Know About Training; this is a perfect example where outside sources unrelated to your business can provide untold insight.

Lead a Project from Start to Finish

Obviously, there are various specialties in theatre and other performing arts; however, most programs end with a final project of creating a vision, a concept, a production plan...and beyond. In my case, I directed a play. I had to hire dependable tech people for lighting and sound, find a theatre I could use, find set designers and builders, a choreographer, a costumer, a set dresser and props person, hold auditions, and manage all these people through rehearsals to make my vision a reality. I had to find someone to design posters and programs, and do publicity. I had to manage a small budget. Although my grade was my only reward, the project was designed to make money by attracting audience members and, of course, selling tickets. So, we developed a product and sold it to customers in four weeks to six weeks while attending school. For anyone who gets a theatre degree beyond the Bachelor of Arts or Master of Arts to a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts, one can expect even more intense training. And, once out of school that training continues.

It’s not always so intense in the business world, where there is money to be made. After school, business graduates go to interviews or are fortunate to have been selected from an internship. For actors, we audition. We have to prove our talent, providing the right show is around that needs our look, demonstrated talent, and we fit in. We, artists, know jobs will be few and far between, so we continue our education and training after each paid job ends. I don’t know any business school in this country or anyplace else that puts students in a position go beyond writing a business plan. That said, there may be business internships, or junior executive appointments, but nothing that goes from start to finish like a theatre or performing arts degree.

Manage Dynamic People Effectively

It does seem sometimes even artists don’t understand each other. I have an easier time partying with psychologists or literary folk. Most people find some of us to be quite strange indeed, although, in my case, I was Marine when I started doing professional theatre and commercials so most people couldn't fathom the all-American U.S. Marine sergeant, especially at the end of Vietnam having a creative bone in his body. And, I have known some real nutcases, some flighty, some geniuses and some uncanny talents. We may all be a little different, but when we are cast we are family. We cope and support each other.

Professional theatre people are together all day long and evenings, sometimes living their parts, sometimes not, but your family is there for you beyond that show. So, imagine how we work together. Not everyone can have the lead. Very often, we, too, are sitting there marveling at the talent. Still, we give a hundred plus no matter what our role. We may disagree with director, but it is our job to promote his vision. Most often, a director will offer us the opportunity to communicate our thoughts early on; we are after all, creatives. Huge egos need not apply–only people that will fit in with us to create the level of art we have set out to do.

We are a company put together with time constraints and restrictions. We have sometimes as little as three weeks to rehearse a show and often not in the space where we will open. Those actors who can’t work with others don’t survive. No one can sit around and wait to be told what to do. Those directors, designers, etc., that can’t collaborate and work with us don’t survive either. Of course, if the director can’t manage the people, in the professional world, the theatre business can’t survive. It is usually without the insistence of the director (our leader) that we all work together as an ensemble, a company, because if we fail, we have not created art. It is like a vendor who has sold no products or someone who serves others who cannot find anyone who wants his service. By the way, just as performers continually train so do the directors and other artistic professionals; the directors may also be performers. Interestingly enough, continuous training is on our list as actors and it should be on every employee’s list.

Ensure Total Accountability

I remember doing a show in Alexandria, Virginia. Actors are responsible to know where their props are, which means getting to know the prop person and instructing him or her where you need it. In this case, we had so much help back stage, I was afraid one of prop people would not have my prop where I needed it. I was fine, although one actor went out wearing two sets of glasses. Good thing this was a comedy. Mistakes happen.

We, in theatre, are only as good as our weakest link; it’s that way in business, too, but the weakest link in business may not be challenged for a number of reasons: office politics (who’s got the dirt on who, who owes who), plain old nepotism or near nepotism (a friend of a friend or a relative) cronyism, oldtimers with history, investors for a seat at the table, and power shifts. You won’t see that much in theatre. Sure, actors–even directors tell certain actors to audition for a part or a play, but it is no guarantee. The end product is too critical. As an actor, I always disliked pre-cast roles. I ran into that often in California where a name was used to pull in an audience. I felt it took something away from the cast bonding because you rarely bonded with the star who we’d probably never see again. And, some actors never audition for those shows. So, we have our own qualms.

In theatre, mistakes are forgivable, even lines screwed up are joked about onc–in professional theatre; the second time the it happens, you're fired. You may have noticed I make a distinction between regular theatre and professional theatre. In my area of Philadelphia and South Jersey, there are more than 90 theatres and most are community theatres, made up of volunteers and varying budgets falls down. The community theatres do not have the luxury of just letting someone go and they cannot rehearse as much or as intensely as professional theatre. I will say they will often form a very strong bond amongst themselves and even with the audience who will overlook these mistakes. In all fairness, there are few businesses that are out there run totally by volunteers that depend on volunteers to produce the product as well. That is not to say there are not plenty of professional theatres in Philadelphia and outside the city in southern New Jersey and in Wilmington 30 minutes away, and New York City is only an hour away; I’m not that familiar with northern New Jersey, which has its fill of both community and professional theatres.

Implement Big Picture Thinking

We always talk about successful companies and corporations having necessary vision. Without vision, they have nowhere to go. Every play that is performed, whether it be professional or community, has a director’s vision that began as much as two years before it was listed as part of the theatre’s season. Before that, the original producers had a vision we need to keep in mind. Times change; visions may have to follow. The director may already be planning the type of performing area he wants to use if he or she has that option, and he’s analyzing the play for what is intended by the author and looking for something his company may give it to emphasize that message and provide a re-newed message for his audience. His actors know when they audition it is something bigger than they are as do the designers and crew; each show is different, requiring a united creative energy and everyone collaborating together from day one. So, these weird, strange artists work together to create art–the culmination of the director’s and playwright’s vision. Individual members of the company could create art individually and some may do that; they may even work on another show, but for this “big picture thinking,” this vision, they put away their possibly huge egos and roll up their sleeves and work toward this common goal. Opening night, four to six weeks hence, will be their reward. When I first started working in dinner theatre, I was paid per show, so the longer the show stayed open the longer we got paid. We wanted to make sure we kept the customers coming until our next show was ready. It also kept us focused. It had to be part of the owners “big picture thinking” as well.

So, now how do we take this information and turn into a valuable training tool?

Some trainers have already taken a part of this background, including myself, and have used it help make executives better communicators. I like to think our interface has even resulted in some creativity rubbing off or inspiring some. He or she was smart enough to let one of those “weirdos” peddling acting skills for business into the conference room. That’s a start and there are a lot of us doing that. I wrote a blog article on training creative minds, too. That might also be of some help. Kevin suggested one way was to get leaders engaged in the arts, and I agree, especially in the area of community theatre. I have worked on stage with people of every profession imaginable. Apart from stimulating their creativity on a regular basis (hopefully it translated to work), it also gave them an energy boost. Obviously that doesn't do much for those in our training profession unless we arrange for artists to be part of one the company retreats or training sessions, a training session that calls up the “creative you” in all of us. As for those of us already engaged in bringing the arts to business, we need to keep up the pressure in not only the businesses, but in the schools. Businesses say they want certain individuals ready to work, but are they sure what they really want. Is an arts degree so bad after all?

Again, there is the obvious, just show these four points to business and hope they buy into it. I say incorporate into your leadership training. These four points resonated with some of my theatre friends who have applied for jobs in business and have been turned away. Maybe they shouldn't have been turned away, when we have something to learn from creatives. They are after all the innovators.

My thanks to Kevin Daum for his inspirational post of the four points here and ideas that might have been triggered by him for me to put on my own particular twist. An Inc. 500 entrepreneur with a more than $1 billion sales and marketing track record, Kevin Daum is the best-selling author of Video Marketing for Dummies. @awesomeroar

That’s all for now. I would appreciate you checking out my website and if you are interested in my novel, Harry’s Reality or my best-selling The Cave Guide to Training and Development. I probably shouldn’t tell you there are coupons there to get these books for free. Happy Training.

For more resources about training, see the Training library.

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