Bringing Drama to the Business World: Through the Arts a New Leader Emerges
As the way we show up for work continues to evolve and companies seek to identify what exactly the new, new normal should look like, the focus on employee wellbeing and mental health will continue to rise. I think it will be very hard for leaders who lack emotional intelligence to survive in a post COVID world. This pandemic has helped to underscore the importance of employee engagement and the basic need for human connection in the workplace. A highly operational operating model running on Lean Six Sigma and a this is the way we’ve always done it mentality may have been tolerated in 2019 but things are a little different now: a recent Gallup report shares that approaching employees from a holistic perspective and supporting the whole person rather than the worker is the new model. The survey states, “People with thriving wellbeing simply do better in life. And companies with thriving employees do better business.” This work is bigger than engagement programs and employee resource groups, it extends to company leaders and how they show up for their people on a daily basis. And while this may sound idealistic, if it is the new requirement, what exactly does it look like in practical application, what is the expectation of the 21st century leader?
In a prerecording of our podcast, The Human Method, launching this Spring, I had the pleasure of interviewing a theater director, and the leadership parallels to corporate America were uncanny. We can learn a lot from theater when it comes to leadership and human connection:
I interviewed Jack Tamburri, a theater director and educator based in New York and Philadelphia and graduate of the University of Chicago and the Yale School of Drama. Our goal was to have a free-flowing and intellectual conversation focused on the distinction of leadership in his industry and as we conversed, a new wave of leader unfolded. Through his work and observations of others in the field, he has adopted 3 values that guide him and how he shows up to lead every day. His values are curiosity, collaboration, and vulnerability.
Jack explained that building a tolerance and appetite from a state of unknowing is paramount in achieving work that is interesting. In the beginning of his career, he brought education and a high value of practical application into his work yet quickly realized that in order to get the most out of people he would need to develop an appetite for curiosity. He shares, “If you presume your initiating idea is not the best way to get to the outcome but is only the beginning of a process to get there, it will compel you to listen authentically; it will make you want to know what the better ideas are.” He believes that in the adoption of a curious perspective he sets himself up to be a more open and engaged leader. It is a value that activates other desired leadership qualities without much effort or attention. He touts curiosity as his opportunity to provide the best possible work, “Without being interested in this space it’s not possible to become something that you are not already, you can’t get better (…) real curiosity requires vulnerability because not knowing is vulnerable.”
Vulnerability, while expressed in moments, can be a challenging value to uphold consistently. Society has trained us to build a lifestyle around avoidance of vulnerability. It is easy to hook to the idea that we have to be a certain way at work from how we speak to the information we elect to share with others. However, Jack does not believe in success without vulnerability. He states, “[in theater] without the willingness to be vulnerable, there is not much of an interest to watch a performer.” He has been on both sides of vulnerability and shares, “When you make decisions opaquely with the idea that it will somehow make things simpler you lose something. I have done it both ways. Getting feedback, if even if you do not make the decision your team wanted, makes them feel a part of the process and works better 100% of the time.” While it takes time and requires planning, Jack understands the consequences of not seeking feedback from his team. We engaged in a rich dialogue around leaders who are pressed for time and need to move something along quickly, I questioned the cost of bypassing vulnerability and Jack replied, “Vulnerability is necessary because it is the only thing that is going to come to your aid when you hit a snag. If you cannot be vulnerable you better hope to never make a mistake.”
Collaboration is the price of entry for any team dynamic and is the key to creating work that holds value. Jack says, “Nothing is possible without collaboration (…) theater is an intensely collaborative art form (…) the value of collaborating is fundamental to any movement toward a piece of work that is interesting.” Jack shared that as a leader, building his collaborative awareness was a challenge at first, “I had had a lot of experience with proposing extravagant visions but what I did not understand was how to work with an actor in the moment and cultivate their personalization of the situation we were trying to dramatize. I did not understand what they needed from me.” Jack hit a wall and realized that he needed to breakdown his own perception of himself as a leader to become open to others. He had to let go of the image he had created of himself and become raw in the real world to get the most out of his actors. He shared, “I had to really examine the persona I brought into my work sessions and change the interpersonal contract. I had to be authentically trustworthy as opposed to someone who was declarative.” He expressed that real confidence in a leader is the ability to genuinely listen to someone else while being open to the possibility of a different answer than your own.
There is always a space to be better. We can bring out more in others by bringing out more in ourselves. As 2020 has shown us, our plans and unyielding truths can be shattered in a second. A genuine approach to others and an openness to change will allow us to shift from a reactive to proactive state while adopting a growth mindset. If we can learn to practice curiosity, vulnerability, and collaboration perhaps the rest will fall into place.
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