In many ways, a leader's role in business is similar to that of a theatre director. In both cases, a strong overall vision and clear communication from the top are vital to ensure a successful performance. Just as a good leader needs to be able to delegate responsibility in order to achieve their business goals, so a director has to be able to trust that their cast and wider creative team will share their vision. The same is true in reverse: without the strategic expertise of a leader or the guidance of a director, the end result is likely to be a messy failure.

Here, our RADA Business tutors further explore this concept of the leader as director – something that has particular resonance right now, as leaders continue to grapple with ways to inspire and motivate their teams in a hybrid world.

Read on for more on how business leaders can learn from their theatre-industry counterparts.

A new laboratory for leadership performance

Every stakeholder in every organisation at every level needs their leader to perform well.

Leaders want their organisations to perform well. For that to happen, they need their people to perform well. In order to achieve that, leaders need to perform well themselves. It all sounds very logical – and yet, almost everyone has encountered a leader that they feel demotivates them.

Most leaders are well intentioned, however employee engagement scores remain incredibly low. Gallup’s 2017 global employee engagement survey put positive engagement at 15%, rising just 2% to 17% in 2020.

So why is good leadership so hard to do, and so hard to find? What are we missing?

We believe that one of the key things many leaders lack is a space where they can safely practice the techniques of leadership – a space that could be imagined as a Leadership Laboratory, where they can experiment and learn.

Putting in the practice

Going back to basics, the root of the word “organisation” comes from ‘organ’ which derives from the Greek, meaning tool or instrument.

The skilful user of a tool or instrument is someone who has practised in order to get better results. The implication, then, is that ‘organising’ requires skill – which requires practice. So when it comes to leadership, are leaders putting in the practice hours?

Great leaders are made, not born.

Many ascribe to the 70/20/10 rule: that 70% of learning comes from experience, 20% comes from interactions with others, and 10% comes from educational interventions.

Plenty of leaders dedicate themselves to that 10%. The high demand for leadership development training is testament to how seriously we all take this. We’ve known for decades that we all have the capacity to become better leaders – great leaders are made not born. So what is missing from these educational experiences that would enable leaders to excel?

Studying leadership theory certainly helps us understand cognitively what makes a good leader, as does exploring what has worked for others. But it is the act of leadership that is harder to practice. It is deeply personal. To learn about the act of leadership, we have to feel what it’s like to be thrust into the leadership experience, and we have to draw our own learning from it – to test ourselves and discover our own way. This is where having a space to practice – the Leadership Laboratory mentioned previously – can be hugely beneficial.

Taking responsibility

The role of a theatre director has many parallels for today’s leaders, and when we talk about the need for an experimental Leadership Laboratory, basically what we mean is a rehearsal studio.

Putting on a stage production involves bringing a group of strangers together, asking them to work cooperatively and intimately with trust from the very beginning. Together, you devise a product, take it to market and then your cast delivers the same performance eight times a week, each time as if it is first time it’s ever been staged.

The theatre director facilitates a complex process with many collaborators – known collectively as The Company. The quality of being ‘in the moment’ and being able to respond to one another requires high levels of engagement from actors, which means they need to take full ownership of their role in order for the play to succeed, as a performance in itself, and critically and commercially. A director therefore needs all company members to take a very high level of responsibility.

Creating an environment of trust

Actors are deeply committed and passionate about what they do (honestly, they have to be as the pay can be bad). They care deeply about their craft, and that means they have a lot to say. So for a director, it is no mean feat to provide a solid structure for a diverse and creative group of actors, whilst also giving them the freedom to do their work. The goal is to find a sweet spot where everyone’s creativity can flourish.

Directors lay out parameters, explain the approach, ask questions, and facilitate actors by empowering them. All the while, they expect the actor to make their own connections. They know that if they impose their will, the relationship cannot grow, and the play struggles.

It is this personal engagement of the actor in an environment where there is the freedom to take risks that provides businesses with a rich model for leadership. The actor plays and experiments in a context of ‘psychological safety’. There is the implicit understanding that the job cannot be done without the actor finding their motivation and connecting personally with the text. They can only do this where there is trust, otherwise authentic connections cannot be made. When human beings feel unsafe they cannot listen, and listening is the bedrock of a living play.

Through this environment of trust, enquiry and risk, what a director hopes is that a true ensemble emerges. The director can then take their place in the auditorium on opening night, and witness the actors doing their work. The director is not the one controlling the performance – and nor should they want to be.

When human beings feel unsafe they cannot listen.

Lessons for leaders

In any organisation empowering people is important, but in theatre the actors are the product. How they show up is precisely the thing you’re selling.

What if leaders expected the same level of investment from employeess? What if every leader made a pitch for the highest levels of engagement and gave employees the feeling that their ideas matter critically, and that they all have an important role to play? What if every leader could help people connect more deeply with the story, and why it matters.

Perhaps low engagement scores happen because people don’t feel engaged with? In which case, perhaps we need to look at raising the expectations of employees, in a way that could actually help leaders and their teams achieve success.

Blog by Charlie Walker-Wise and Claire Dale.

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