Knowledge Center: Article

Chief Executive Officer & Board of Directors

Leadership Lessons from the Performing Arts

4/17/2016 John Bell and James Evans

Business Lessons From The Performing Arts

We started Bell Shakespeare in a circus tent on a hot summer’s night in Sydney, Australia, in 1990. Our first season consisted of Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice.

My vision, and the strategy that resulted from that vision, was to create a company dedicated to producing the plays of William Shakespeare in a way that was meaningful and exciting to contemporary audiences.

Today we are successful enough to continue performing, but it is always going to be a balance between the creativity and the financial aspect of the business.

In a quarter of a century, we have firmly established ourselves as Australia’s only truly national theater company, specializing in the immortal plays of Shakespeare and his peers, including Marlowe, Jonson, and Molière, whose masterpieces bear comparison with the man acknowledged as history’s greatest playwright.

Be part of the team

In the theater, you have to earn your place. You are only as good as your last production or your last review. You are under constant scrutiny.

I haven’t ever written down a set of values or set out in a strategic plan what values I want to instill. Leadership comes down to example and the way you treat people and relate to them. We are very considerate of each individual’s personal happiness and well-being.

Use doubt to your advantage

I think if you aren’t full of doubt, you are probably not a very good leader. Every day is riddled with doubt. Whether I’m directing or acting, I don’t come off stage thinking, “That was a great performance; I was good tonight.” I think of all the things that I missed or that weren’t so good.

That is why at the end of every day’s rehearsal, I ask, “What are we missing here? What is going wrong? Are you all happy with what we are doing? Any suggestions, criticisms, ideas? Where can we go from here?”

This keeps the thing organic, and it keeps everybody on the same side to evolve and collaborate. It also helps inform you that you are on the right track.

Embrace continuous learning

Leaders must be constantly learning and developing their skills. I have made continuous learning a key part of my leadership.

Going to see other companies’ performances and reading widely is a big part of it but also just going to art galleries, listening to music, going to concerts, and feeding the mind with creative material. I find a lot of inspiration from contemporary art, for example. You draw on a wide range of material almost subconsciously. The main thing is to constantly get out of your safety zone.

Get rid of people who threaten your work

I dread even reprimanding staff very strongly. You can do it gently, but I dread confrontation. In my 50 years, I have had to fire four people. All four were cases of substance abuse, not just a one-off thing, which I will forgive. I had to say, “This is unacceptable. You are threatening this production; you are threatening my work, the work of our colleagues. You are putting the company at risk.” And I had no compunction in saying, “There are your marching orders.”

Inspire and empower colleagues

The first thing is to think of what you are doing for the company or the particular show and get everybody inspired and enthusiastic about that, and then empower everybody involved.

So with a production, for instance, if there are actors playing smaller roles, don’t make them feel less important than the people with the larger roles.

I will say to an actor with a smaller part, “What can you do? What are your skills?” It might be juggling or tap dance.

So I say, “OK, we’ll start each day with a warm-up; you teach us how to juggle or tap dance.” I do that to get them involved, contributing, earning respect from the other people and so everybody has some status in the show.

Learn from criticism

Self-awareness is a prerequisite for anybody to feel successful and safe in what they are doing. It is all the more important for a leader.

The only way you can gain self-awareness is by listening to criticism. Not only listening, but also seeking out criticism and feedback—knowing who you are and learning what people are saying about you, how they might work with you, and what they see as your strengths and weaknesses.

One has to seek those things out and not just hope to hear them through the grapevine.

Gather evidence

Evidence gathering is critical to gaining credibility as a leader. We make sure that everyone feels they have had their say and that no one has been denied a voice, but not just for the sake of window dressing or democracy.

When you listen properly as a leader, you find that people have a lot of interesting ideas and feedback, even from a quick discussion that you wouldn’t have had if you had just walked around the room by yourself.

Foster collaboration but be decisive

Nobody has a divine right to lead. It must always be earned, or you will be overthrown. In the arts, as in business, we need to know our stuff. Hubris leads to loneliness and isolation, followed by paranoia and a distancing from the very people who can make you successful. To presume you have any “right” at all is highly dangerous. You need to keep earning the people’s trust.

On the rehearsal floor, it is still a matter of negotiation and give-and-take. You must let everybody have a go at how they want to express themselves. Autocratic rule is never very productive in the long run. It might be a short-term fix, but it doesn’t last.

But even when you have earned respect through being collaborative, people are still looking to you for strong leadership. After canvassing everyone’s opinion, there still has to be a tough decision made, and you’re the one who has to make it and not shy away from it.

Invest in young people

It is useful to build up a backlog of people who have experience and who have proved their worth in production development paths. But with every production we do, I like to have new people, young blood. It is a duty to keep employing young people, to give them a chance. We employ eight young actors every year, straight out of drama school. We send them on the road for a year, playing Shakespeare three times a day to schoolkids all over the country.

By the end of it, they are seasoned. They know all there is to know about crowd control, storytelling, and speaking Shakespeare to a large and sometimes restless audience. It is a fantastic training ground. And many of those young actors have graduated to our main productions in the following years.

Work with people who share your vision

When we started, it was a matter of having a vision to stick to through thick and thin and then translating that vision to people so that they understood it and would hopefully come on board. If people don’t share in your vision, they won’t come on board.

Build something that will endure

It was extremely hard work to get the company off the ground 25 years ago. We had no government funding, we had no subsidies, and we had no corporate sponsors. It was just sort of a daily grind—getting by, show by show, week by week. I wouldn’t give up on it, though, because I believed in it very strongly, and we had so many people who helped get it off the ground. So it is difficult to step down. But my main concern is that the company go on and flourish and expand.

Put your personal ambition aside

Personal ambition is in a separate basket from trying to make something. I could have been more personally ambitious—tried to break into movies and television and get to Hollywood and do all that sort of stuff. But I wanted to make something that would involve other people.

Plan for your succession

Four years ago I started working with the board to plan my succession. It has been absolutely seamless and orderly and has created no ruffles, either in the media or in the company, and that is the important thing. I know I’m leaving the company in good hands to continue fulfilling our mission.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. We have our exits and our entrances, and I am privileged, in my time, to have played many parts. Corporate leaders may look at their careers and find that they, too, are playing many parts and that our collective success and longevity depend on being aware that we’re only as good as our last performance or our last review.

John Bell is founder of Bell Shakespeare, the Australian performing-arts company.

This commentary is adapted from an interview with James Evans, the associate director of Bell Shakespeare, and is part of Shakespeare’s mind for the future: A modern-day tale, a collection of articles marking the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. For the full collection, including the full-length version of this commentary, click here.

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