Want Enduring Influence? Act Like a Theatre Director
In the land of stories, the storyteller is king.
Theatre is the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being. -Oscar Wilde
Theatre is the world’s oldest art form. Long before humans were building pyramids, painting the walls of caves, or making hand axes from stone, we were performing stories for our fellow hunters, the other mothers in our family groups, or our children.
You have actually been doing theatre since you developed consciousness- perhaps before. You taught yourself language, how to manipulate people to pick you up and comfort you, and how to sneeze exactly like your mother, all in the acting school of your own childhood. It is humanity’s primal art — and some non-human animals do it too. Both Plato and Aristotle talked about the universal prevalence of “mimesis,” a word that shares a root with mimic, imitation, and mime. Everything we do, make, or say is some version of something we are replicating. All of our stories grow from this.
Subsequently, stories are the most powerful tool in the human toolbox. They are omnipresent and all encompassing. Nothing that happens in the human experience doesn’t have stories told about it. Everything we have ever understood can be understood through a story. Fiction or history, journalism or joke, a story is the basic building block of human thought and influence. All stories are a kind of theatre.
Theatre comes from a Greek word that means “the place where we observe the world.” Consequently, the seemingly common role of directing theatre is, in fact, extraordinary. Singular. Theatre direction works with the deepest and most complete machinery of humanity’s first storytelling. The entirety of the job is as ancient as our DNA and as common as laundry.
A theatre director’s purpose is to use a story to shape how other people see everything.
So, whether you are an author, philosopher, theologian, politician, CEO, advertiser, filmmaker, teacher, marketer, instagram influencer, celebrity chef, or parent, you are a theatre director. You must commit to building a culture of collaboration if you want to have any real and lasting influence.
In my 15 odd years of directing theatre, I’ve come to learn that there are powerful leadership principles at work in the job. Beyonce, Steve Jobs, Oprah, Colin Powell, Yo-Yo Ma, to Anthony Bourdain, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Warren Buffet apply most, if not all, of these principles. If you lead anything or wish to influence a group of people, follow these simple moves.
7 Theatre Director Leadership Principles
1. Believe that every person has talent and ability. Let all of your team or followers always see that belief in your actions, words, and philosophy.
2. Honor all acts of bravery and creativity, even ones that annoy you. This is the secret to creating a culture of curiosity and imagination.
3. Share/hand over as many real responsibilities with team members as you can. This is the secret to creating a culture of ownership and investment.
4. Carry yourself always as an artist and learner in progress. You have more experience than those you lead — often, that is your only leg up on them.
5. Physical safety is the most important boundary in which you are authoritarian as a leader — be clear, without jokes or apology. When boundaries are crossed, be transparent and unequivocal — but avoid guilt, shame, or social punishments for anyone in your organization, company, or community.
6. Be aware that your own biases can derail your goals. Your social values, beliefs about gender/race/age/ethnicity, “appropriateness,” sex, violence, etc. are your own — and sometimes they should stay that way.
7. Judge team members’ work and behavior — never the people themselves. Maintain this separation! Model this for your team.
Mike Kleba has been teaching high school English and Theatre for nearly 20 years. He’s currently teaching 9–10th grade Honors English while also leading DegreeCast, a startup that is building a tool designed to make higher ed search more practical and delightful. Co-founder of Teachernomics.com, Kleba has spoken on stages around the world about the importance and power of teachers in leadership. He believes that humanity’s most important asset is the imagination.