Every time I attend a conference such as USITT, I am impressed by the number of students and newly minted graduates I encounter. Their excitement and optimism at being part of the theatre and entertainment world is inspiring. However, in the back of my mind is a consistently nagging question: While their university programs and internships are preparing them to be technically proficient, are they getting the benefit of good leadership that will in turn enable them to be successful in their fields? If you are a veteran and a “leader” who works with these individuals, this is where you come in.

  • Re-think the leadership pyramid 
  • Four tenets for good leadership 
  • What makes a leader?

Re-think the leadership pyramid

Those of us in “leadership” positions have many obligations to those with whom we are entrusted to lead. These include creating a vision, clear and constant communication, goal setting, constructive performance feedback and, importantly, listening. However, there is one aspect that is rarely emphasized, much less acted upon, that is required to truly lead: Putting yourself in the position of helping those you lead succeed.

All too often leadership is viewed in the context of a pyramid.

The leader is at the top and those being led are at the bottom. “Leadership” gets pushed down and results, hopefully, get pushed up. The pitfall of this traditional approach is it makes leaders more like managers and it removes those who are doing the critical work from those who can provide invaluable insights and teaching moments.

Leadership that focuses on individual success, however, uses the opposite approach.

The leaders view the pyramid as upside down, with them at the bottom serving in the role of enabler and constantly assessing the needs of their charge and facilitating the activities and environment necessary to meet those needs. They create opportunities for people to engage in a variety of activities, to stretch outside their comfort zones and to benefit from learning opportunities. They also understand that each individual has their own definition of success. For one person it may be completing their first engagement as a production manager or lighting designer while for another person it may be winning an award. As a leader it is important to understand each person’s vision of success, whether short-term or long-term in nature, and to provide the appropriate enablement for each.

This is not to say these leaders do not also focus on results. They do and they hold people accountable when results are not met. However, even with addressing failure, these leaders are either looking to create a teaching moment or to facilitate a smooth transition elsewhere.

Four tenets for good leadership

To be effective, these leaders need to be committed to the following:

  • A Learning Culture 
    Culture is critical and as a leader you set the tone. A culture that does not value success, learning and, more importantly, learning from mistakes is a disabler to success. Additionally, the culture needs to be supportive of taking risks and must create an environment where every person is committed to each other’s success.
  • Listening with Empathy 
    A leader should be as invested in each person’s success as much as, if not more than, they are invested in their own success. However, you cannot fully understand the best way to facilitate success if you do not listen to the needs of those you lead and if you cannot visualize yourself in their shoes to appreciate their desires and challenges. This requires active listening, empathy and the willingness to engage with individuals at a deep enough level to create an understanding of what will be required to help them achieve success.
  • Willingness to Invest 
    Helping people succeed comes at a cost that is typically a combination of time, resources and actual dollars. If you have taken the time to understand what an individual needs to be successful but are unwilling to make the necessary investment, you completely short-circuit the individual’s ability to succeed.
  • Willingness to Receive Feedback 
    Now the tough one. Success-enabling leaders understand that leading effectively requires an understanding of their own weaknesses and areas of improvement. This requires the leader to solicit input on themselves from those they lead. This can be difficult and uncomfortable. However, the insights you gain and the trust you build (assuming you make a sincere effort to improve where appropriate) is invaluable.

What makes a leader?

John Quincy Adams, statesman, diplomat and the sixth US president, once said:

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

Leadership is not barking orders, tearing people down when something goes wrong or forcing someone to “sink or swim.” None of that creates inspiration or a desire to push beyond the minimum required to get the job completed. People stretch, grow and achieve more when enabled by a leader who has a passion for and a vested interested in their success, acknowledges their accomplishments, turns failures into learning and provides the necessary tools for the job.

Yes, it is a lot of work and it takes unwavering commitment, but it is worthwhile. Why, you ask? As is often said, those who serve others serve themselves.

Previously published on TheatreArtLife, a platform for industry professionals from all live entertainment genres to connect and learn from each other! 


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