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Treading the boards: What leaders can learn from the theatre


Theatre and performance has much to teach us, so how can our leaders of today take a page from their script and transform themselves and their organisations? Richard Tyler reports.

The news in recent weeks has been awash with press coverage from the BAFTAs, the Oscars, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera sequel…the list goes on. Yesterday all the great and the good from British theatre were recognised through the Olivier Awards. These go to the best of the best: those who take the risks to work right at the edge of their talent and possibility, those who are innovative, creative, visionary storytellers, masters of their chosen art form and inspirers.
Looking back at history, the world of theatre was the first place where people gathered to hear what was happening in other places. The theatre is a place where people connect: with each other and with the larger world. The theatre confronts us, challenges us, entertains us and places us in scenarios of a possible future. No other place provides us with that platform of conscious learning at the deepest possible level in the shortest imaginable time. Theatre is where you can see and where you can behold a possible future.
So, if theatre and its players can offer us so much learning about the human condition and connection with others, then surely it can teach us a thing or two about communicating in the wider world, can’t it? Performers base their existence on their innate ability to connect with others and communicate in ways that will engage, emote and inspire.
I weave within many organisations and observe many pieces of theatre being played out. All too often, it is in the boardroom. I also find that I am frequently posed the same question by chief execs, directors, training and L&D teams:
“How can we do something differently? We have tried the traditional stuff and now we need something that will grab people in new and challenging ways. How can we ignite some razzmatazz? How can we have leaders who are transformers, who take centre stage and will act and think in new ways..?”
So, you are beginning to make that connection now, right? If in the world of performance, people are doing that very thing, what happens if we begin to understand those core principles and qualities and offer them up to our Leadership teams of today and tomorrow? How much better could they really be?
I dreamt from the age of nine of becoming a singer and actor. Whilst my friends played football and went to discos, I went to singing lessons and ballet. I was determined, persistent and would not be put off by the slightest hiccup along the way. In fact, quite the opposite, it would spur me on to achieve more. I spent a happy and successful nine years playing lead roles in West End theatre. I saw theatre and performance at its root. I was a part of productions that were created from scratch, those that were (and still are) multi million pound works of art. I was a part of the ones that failed too; the ones that closed after only four weeks. I had the immense highs (all legal!) and the crashing lows. I know, there is much to learn and extract from how those works of art were envisioned, nurtured, cast, rehearsed, performed, adapted, updated and, in some cases, closed.
How different is the terrain that our leaders of today are facing? I think, not that different. So, here’s the thing, there are many principles, beliefs, ideals and behaviours that underpin a performance environment that underpin any potential successes. “What are they?”, I hear you ask? Here are three things to consider:

1. The Vision

There is the vision coupled with the desire and ability to bring that exact vision to life; a joined up and collaborative vision where every player connects and makes sense of their role in bringing it to life. I wonder what would happen if every organisation took the headspace to not only create the vision, but to bring it alive, to ask people to step into it, for individuals to be nurtured and encouraged to discover where they fit in too? I spend time in many organisations where people are disconnected and ‘don’t get it’. In the performance arena, this is not an option.

2. The Feedback Loop

The feedback loop starts on day one in any production and continues without question throughout. There is an underpinning belief of course; ‘In order that I can be the best I can be and contribute, so as this performance can be the best it can be, share your feedback and I will share mine’ How refreshing huh? The confidence to have a dialogue and knowing that, at the point this dialogue stops, we hit a wall. Just imagine for a moment if that belief were replicated in organisations? How much healthier and courageous would the dialogue be? How many more issues would be tackled quickly. Hear this, the feedback is frequently uncomfortable though. It isn’t always what you want to hear AND only when we receive it do we discover greater choices.

3. Staying Agile

What happens when we stay agile? By this I mean our ability to keep peripheral vision, notice what is happening around us and adapt accordingly. A piece of theatre has a framework, a process and some rigour to it. However, what brings it alive is that the players continue to stay agile and respond to the changing audience needs. Maybe the pause holds for three seconds more…..maybe the line is said with greater emphasis…..and maybe the glance is slightly more subtle. What matters, is that by remaining agile and responsive to the needs of those around us, we can make those tiny adaptations that make all the difference. I watch leaders, who fail to notice when a member of their organisation or a customer needs a different response – the result can be catastrophic.

So, in answer to the first question I posed, yes there is much for our leaders to learn from the world of performance and its players. It may not bring the red carpets, glitzy showbiz parties and the chance to thank your parents and your pet goldfish, but it will bring them some profound change and transformation.
Richard Tyler is director of performance and possibility at BTFI Ltd. He blogs at and can found at

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