November 2006

A Relationship Story – Shining the Hot Lights on a Leadership Lesson

A simple view on leadership, and a story to support the ideas…

Leadership is about accomplishing 2 things:

(1) Giving people the feeling that they are trusted and believed in to do what they truly can do.

(2) Creating an environment where people can do #1 above, in a community with others also doing #1 above, and for the community to experience synergy by getting more than the sum of the individual parts.

I just had an amazing experience that drove these simple points home for me better than any ever has:

I have been involved for years in a family theater group in Brea, and the arts leadership in the City decided to produce a play celebrating the very interesting 100+ year history of the community. My Theater-Dad buddies Roger, Chuck, Bob, and I wanted to support our friends in the City and offered to play roles in their show if they needed us (yes, I’ll admit, it’s not as if they would be twisting our amateur-ham arms!). Well, they took us up on our offer and we were cast in the show to work with accomplished Playwright and Director Bill Mittler and a diverse cast that included a bunch of experienced and professional actors. We quickly realized that they were not going to cut us novices the same slack we usually get – they didn’t say “oh they’re just Dads” – this was serious and I was sweating from the start.

As we progressed through the 4 weeks of rehearsals leading up to the performances, I found myself being stretched way beyond my own “clueless rookie” comfort zone, and I kept expecting the guru-like Director to expose me for the imposter that I was. But we just kept on and never got the hook, and I found myself getting more and more comfortable and confident as we progressed toward opening night, even though enduring the inevitable rehearsal meltdown just 2 nights before we were to open. But Bill stuck with me and my pals and never appeared worried that we might sink his show and discredit a brilliant piece of writing. So opening night arrived…and everything went off without a hitch. The run of the show ended up a complete success showcasing Bill’s great story. The Business Observation – based on the endorsement of people he trusted, Bill had confidence that we could do this and do it well, and he treated us as if he trusted us and believed in us…and we succeeded in meeting his expectations while exceeding our own.

There was another fascinating group experience that went along with these individual challenges. A cast in a show (31 people in this case) has to have an enormous amount of faith in each other, trusting that everyone else will do their job well. It is impossible for any individual player to have control over the entire outcome, and while individual failures can sink a show, there is amazing and extraordinary potential that comes from the collective shared trust that a cast experiences. Everyone has to execute individually but always be ready to pick up someone else’s line or react and solve a problem when the unexpected happens. The Business Observation – if Bill the Director and leader had not created an environment where we could thrive individually but also bond in a trusted fashion as a group we would not end up becoming the “family” that it takes to succeed together when the lights come on.

Now take a minute to think about your business environment and ask yourself if this would be the same kind of story that people would tell. Remembering when I was a senior leader in my corporate life I now can see that truly trusting others, releasing control, and creating an environment of shared trust were clearly my toughest leadership challenges. I sort of wish that many years ago I could have reached the insight I just experienced being stretched-but-trusted in Bill’s show. Thanks for sharing your time with me. I welcome your thoughts and impressions; please feel free to share this with others who would get value from these ideas.