Break a leg: 7 things leaders can learn from the theater

By Barbara Shannon

Far far back before COVID-19, before consulting, coaching and founding my first business, I was not what I am now. I was an actress in New York. 

After years of keeping my thespian roots in the closet, I’m here to belt from the bottom of my heart that all I really needed to know about business I learned in auditions, rehearsals, and on stage. 

Amid today’s din of social upheaval, economic meltdown and an out-of-control pandemic, we would be well served to look to the art and discipline of the theater to steady our hands on the business tiller.

Wait. Can this really be true? Or is this just me canonizing my ill-spent youth? Would I tell my CEO clients that right now, when weird is normal and the unexpected arrives like clockwork, their companies need what theater’s got?

To help answer these lurking questions, I called my friend Paul Charney, CEO of Fun Works, the Ad Age Creative Agency of the Year 2019. Paul is a fellow New Yorker who also walked the boards as an improv actor back in the day. Paul and I are in violent agreement: Business is theater, and business leaders have much to learn from the creativity, focus and discipline of the performing arts. Especially now.

What follows are small treasures, big truths and a few major trip-ups summoned from our collective thespian memories and applied to the business stage of today. 

Curtain up! 

Be present

The actor stereotype is that of a self-absorbed human who uses the stage (or the camera) to work out their personal issues. But this image is a myth. Great acting is not a solo sport; it’s 90 percent listening and being fully present with the other actors on stage.

In live theater, from the play’s opening to the last applause, the actor is invisibly tethered to his fellow performers and to the audience. From my friend Paul’s perspective, “It’s this connection that makes it possible to improvise and pivot when the unexpected occurs and someone forgets their lines, or the orchestra plays the wrong intro to your big number. When screw-ups happen,  your focus on the present moment is where your brilliant improvisation can be found.” 

In business, the same principle applies. Even in the midst of seismic shifts of changing consumer preferences and technology disruption, great leaders stay present and focused on their teams and their customers. The ability to hyper-focus enables innovation and adaptation rather than overhaul in a crisis. 

Paul puts it this way, “In business, the target market is too often expressed as a static thing, but there are always new people and new demands shaping that target. Think about your customer, how they’re feeling and how what they need from you is changing. Then, modify what you’re offering to make it better for them every single day.”

Know the knowns

In theater, you start by getting familiar with the facts of the play: your character’s history, location, physicality, and mindset. These “knowns” are not limits, but rather guide rails for your journey. They are the starting place of an actor’s creative adventure.

“When a team starts working on a new play, the director can often see that where they’re taking the story is even more interesting than what’s written on the page,” Paul explains. “Each individual has the freedom to inject their own creativity, vision, and ideas into the production, once they are entirely familiar with and comfortable with the guide rails of the script.”

Business leaders exist to innovate, break barriers, and thrive. To do so, the first step is recognizing the boundaries and variables you have to work with. What’s the status quo in your space? What are the barriers (aka why has no one tried to make your product before you)? From this foundation, you can create and do things differently as you imagine solutions.

Begin by getting grounded. Then think bigger.

Play in a safe space

So how do we get from the comfort of known boundaries to the open space of creative solutions? In the theater, directors transition from the written word to the created three-dimensional production by establishing a safe space for the actors to explore their impulses and ideas.

As a business leader, you want to give your team creative license to find solutions to complex problems, while you remain clear about the reality of your operating environment.

“The director strikes a balance between discipline and creativity,” says Paul. “If the actor pushes an idea beyond the limits of the script, it’s up to the director to pull them back, and explain why what they tried doesn’t work. This makes the actors feel safe. They know you’ve got the big picture in hand while they are free to play creatively with their part.”

Isn’t this what we look to CEOs to do? Create a safe place where everyone can bring their best ideas, while trusting that the leadership team is minding the big picture of the business.

Open hearts

My first acting coach taught that you can’t be an actor unless you have absolute compassion for your character. You can’t play anyone you don’t genuinely love. It’s a powerful philosophy for life and for managing people. Compassion is too often lacking in businesses, and they’re missing the benefits of that deep trust that comes from really knowing and caring about every individual team member.

While most leaders acknowledge the importance of trust, it’s rarely at the top of the priority list—until the lack of it precipitates a crisis. Trust isn’t secondary to the outcome of a great performance, it’s central. And it comes only from opening the heart, a willingness to acknowledge vulnerability and the courage to rely on the ensemble.

“Love matters in the theater and it should matter in business.” So says Paul Charney. “If you risk falling in love with the process and the experience, you will leave knowing that you did something great.” 

Doesn’t this apply to everything we do? And in a time when outcomes are darkened by the spectres of COVID-19, the election, a falling economy, and racial strife, maybe trusting one another and bringing love to work is our safest bet after all.

Laughter

Allowing for the absurd, the off-script moments, and even some dark humor is an essential safety valve. The team that laughs together works well together. And laughter makes us happy to come to work. That’s a good thing!

I’ve never laughed as much as I did in a production with the Irish Arts Theatre Group. The wit! The banter! The verbal thrust and parry! It boggled the mind and broke our disciplined rehearsals into bawd fests. It also connected us to each other and freed our creative spirits. Our director was as often the instigator as the spoiler. And it’s what I remember most fondly about that sell-out show. 

Respect the craft and the process

The openness, compassion, and trust that is the life blood of every great theatrical production is met in equal measure by a profound commitment to the daily rehearsal process. I have never found this level of commitment in business. Really. Never. In the theater you show up for rehearsal no matter what. You prepare your scene the night before, and you arrive knowing your lines and your blocking. There is no wiggle room on these precepts, so don’t look to your fellow cast members for sympathy if you’re off your mark. A lack of preparation is not a laughing matter. It’s costly to the production, it’s disrespectful to your fellow cast members and crew, and it’s an insult to the craft of acting itself. 

Note to self: Show up. Be on time. Be prepared. 

A case in point is business meetings—these are often unrehearsed run-throughs of required metrics, targets, and plans. Are they engaging or energizing? No. Business meetings are abysmal theater—that’s why you have to pay the audience to sit through them instead of the other way around.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The CEOs I work with learn to script their storylines, their transitions between one presentation and the next. Their presentations are well prepared and they are well rehearsed. The results are eye-opening, engaging, and motivational, and often interspersed with laughter. 

Fear = Energy

Fear is a given for actors. An actor’s fear is justified. So many things could go wrong and often do. But night after night, before the performance, the actor, standing in the wings, transforms fear into energy. Heart pounding. Mouth dry. The show must go on. The actor  inhales fear and exhales commitment, focus and energy as she walks on stage. As Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, “There’s no crying in baseball!” Theater is like that—you swallow that lump, hold your head high, and walk on.

Paul and I both have stories about fear, screwing up, and going on anyway. “Good actors don’t overreact to mistakes,” says Paul. “They’re rewarded for their preparation. When something goes wrong on stage, everyone leaps into the hyper-creative side of themselves. That’s the kind of reaction that should be expected and encouraged at work.”

One night I was working props backstage at a summer theater production. I was supposed to hand Glenda Jackson a pitcher of baby shampoo whipped to a creamy lather that she would take from me stage right, walk to center stage, and pour it over the head of her costar Ian McKellan. I forgot to get the shampoo. Suddenly, there was Glenda staring at me. We looked down at the empty saucer where the pitcher of stage creme was supposed to be. I saw her turn and walk back on stage empty-handed as I raced across the alley to the prop shop. I turned on the blender, poured the white froth, raced back to stage right only to find Glenda and her costar blithely ad-libbing a very funny bit about her character’s memory loss. The audience was howling. That was creative genius in action. Trust, commitment, preparation and craft supercharged by adrenaline, aka fear.

Today, more than any time in memory, business leaders need to practice transmuting fear into energy. Here’s a final tip, and there are no How-To steps for this one. Alchemy requires faith. As Geena Davis once said, “If you risk nothing, then you risk everything.” Don’t overthink it. Take the leap. Do it.


Barbara Shannon is a San Francisco-based CEO coach, founder of CEO peer group THECEOBOARD and ATHENA, a monthly mastermind group dedicated to the success of women entrepreneurs.

 

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