The Ethical Business Guide emphasizes ethical leadership. Did you know that a business leader is like a theatre director? No, wait. Hear me out.
Theatre directors are trained to work towards a successful production (organizational product) through a realized vision (mission) for a diverse audience (consumers). Theatre, at its best, exemplifies pure collaboration. Directors give free rein to the multiple, individual and unique talents of their actors to solve the problem of collaboration; how do we do more together than we could ever do alone? R. Edward Freeman, Professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, expanded this philosophy and built coursework for graduate business students using the best practices of the theatre director. In his MBA course, Leadership and Theatre, Professor Freeman outlines three aspects of successful leadership as compared to the practices of the theatre director.
A successful leader -
- embodies the purpose of the organization. The effective leader shares this purpose, in a sincere manner, much like the director shares her directorial vision. A clearly articulated business plan, or directorial vision, allows the employee/actor to bring their creativity to the organization, achieving freedom within the central structure of the vision.
- creates an atmosphere of safe dissent. Without honest feedback from employees/actors, the company runs the risk of stagnation. True collaboration thrives in an environment free of fear or recrimination. A good director listens to her actors, elicits creative input during the rehearsal process, and incorporates the best ideas into the final production.
- creates a conversation about ethics, values and the purpose of the organization. These conversations must be lively in order to inspire the employee/actor to show up every day.
In 2003, Professor Freeman and Laura Dunham, then a graduate student and now Associate Professor and Entrepreneurship Chair at the University of St. Thomas, collaborated on a study that juxtaposed the role of the business leader and the craft of the theatre director. (There is a Business Like Show Business: Leadership Lessons from the Theater. Organizational Dynamics, Vol. 29, No.2, pp.108-122.). Expanding beyond the practicalities of budget, organization and production values, Professors Freeman and Dunham identified four key areas in which the business leader and the director work in comparable manners.
1. Before any production, the effective director starts an extensive script analysis in order to learn everything about the script, the characters, the setting, the time period, the playwright, the culture in which the play was written, and the playwright’s body of work. All of these elements inform the play and create a subtext that brings richness to the stage. This process closely resembles the market/trends analysis that is conducted by the effective business leader.
2. The thoughtful theatre director casts the right people for each role, resisting stereotypes. In the same manner, the successful business leader seeks out the right people for the team, those capable of effective collaboration, without relying solely on incentives and other superficial measures.
3. The rehearsal is the meat-and-potatoes of any production. It is the process that allows for experimentation and mistakes before bringing the fully realized production to the stage and adding the final element, the audience. Through the rehearsal process, the theatre director blends her directorial vision, created through script analysis, with the individual and unique talents of the actors. The process embraces not only collaboration but also continual learning in order to further growth. Far from enforcing a vision on a cast, the thoughtful director takes the best that is offered and molds a new vision, one that may be quite different from her first approach. There is a popular directorial formula that maintains that if 80% of the directorial vision makes it to the stage, then the director has done 100% of her job. The business leader can learn from this approach, applicable to the research-and-development process, to draw the best from the organizational team.
4. No play is complete until the audience is added, just as the business leader must finally offer his product to the consumer. However, the show is not over. Actors must stay ‘in the moment’, actively listening and reacting with sincere behaviors to the words and actions around them on the stage. Listening and risk-taking are applicable lessons for the business leader to create a high performance team. Responding to trends, listening to customer feedback, and resisting the temptation to put the business on auto-pilot (“But, we’ve always done it this way!”) results in an organization that can react quickly and effectively to changes in the market.
There is an old, but often true, saying in theatre: when the performance is good, the actors get all the praise and when the performance is bad, the director gets all the blame. Effective leadership not only requires passion, creativity, and intuition, traits that are embodied by the successful theatre director, but also the ability to step back so that employees shine. When seeking to energize his organization, the business leader can look to the theatre director for the best practices to encourage vision, feedback, and collaboration. Perhaps it is fitting to leave the last word to Shakespeare – “To business that we love, we rise betimes and go to‘t with delight.”