Backstage Leadership

Backstage Leadership

Leadership comes in many shapes and sizes. There is the leadership of blazing the trail, and there is the leadership of coaching others to blaze the trail.

Many people consider leadership to be the position out in front, leading the way for others. There are leadership roles, however, that are invisible to many, but extremely critical in getting a job done.

I spent a lot of time in theatre over the years. In high school I was involved in every production we did. And always backstage. I pulled the curtains. I built set pieces. I moved props. I set lights.

It was great training, because in college I earned money as a technical director for a local little theatre. I made sure that each production had all its technical needs met. Sets were built, lights designed and set, props secured, and an able and capable crew was in place for every production.

In that experience, I learned the importance of the role that is in each and every production, but never takes a bow. The Stage Manager.

A theatre production involves the same kind of teamwork as most of us see in the workplace. A diverse set of complimentary talents come together to bring all the elements required for a good show. They work it, polish it, and make it shine for the paying audience. The producer looks at all aspects in an oversight role, the director works primarily with the actors to make sure they bring out everything the playwright had in mind for the show, and if there is a choreographer or a music director, they provide expertise and direction in their specific areas.

But come performance night, there is one leader for the whole production, the stage manager. It is her role to know and understand every aspect of the production, and make certain that every element is covered and ready for the evening’s performance. That one person is uniquely accountable. If someone misses a technical cue with lighting or sound, it’s the stage manager’s role to correct that issue, sometimes in real time, sometimes through coaching and training to avoid the problem from happening again.

I recently realized how much this shaped my view of leadership. I have been involved in a project for the last several months that had impacts globally in my organization. I have contacts in each region, and throughout the US, that had to work in harmony to execute the plan. For the last few months we have had experts from various functions helping prepare the HR team for the execution of the project. But, come performance time, they were like actors on the stage, reliant on one another and their own preparation to get the job done right. I stood back in the wings, watching them and looking for any problem areas that I could solve if needed.

Like a good play, when it is time to execute a project, you hope the customer is happy with the performance. Pleased not only with the outcome, but in the way the project was achieved. And when the people involved get their pats on the back (applause) then the stage manager knows that she did her job well too.

Can you identify a time in your career where your role as a leader was in the background, but essential to the success of the endeavor? It might be useful to understand how you felt about that, and, more importantly, what you need to do better the next time your are in that role.

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