Lessons From the Theater: For Leadership in the Digital Age

By Sean Miller, Global Vice President of Leadership Development, Essence

Sean Miller, Global Vice President of Leadership Development, Essence

It’s your first day at a new job. You awkwardly scan the room of 20 new recruits, seeing if there’s anyone you recognize from your previous workplaces. In four weeks’ time, the person you’re sitting next to will ‘become’ your spouse, and you’ll be performing on stage to a theater full of people expecting to see quality and leave with a sense of value.

While the end product may vary - and you don’t end up theatrically married to your neighbor - business and ‘show business’ have much more in common than just a shared name.

Theaters have been going from “Hi, how are you?” to high performing teams in a matter of weeks for thousands of years. Working in the marketing and advertising business, we have to do the same for clients’ campaigns day in, day out.

So, what lessons can we take from the theater and how can they be implemented every day to improve our own performance?


In theater, it doesn’t matter what part you play, from stage manager to tenth spear-carrier to the left to front of house ice-cream vendor, you are aware of your role, making sure that the group meets the director’s end vision. All this happens with no performance management system, electronics-enabled or manuscript to guide people; it’s driven through clear communication.

Instilling strong company values is key, but it also needs to be articulated on an individual level, ensuring employees establish a personal connection to the role they play in the bigger picture. Giving people a personal mission brings individual focus as well as the freedom to be creative.

Pace and Feedback

Theatrical production companies are under huge pressure to ensure a quick production turnaround and make healthy financial returns for investors in staggeringly short timescales. Despite this, directors will allow space and time for creative processes to work, enabling the cast to slow down first, in order to go fast.

Giving enough space for problems to be worked through and made right at an early stage is essential, which ensures the best end results.

A major factor in ensuring time is used wisely in theater is feedback; it’s continual, both throughout the rehearsal process as well as at the end of every performance—directors will often share their feedback with performers as it happens. In the business world, we’ve all become accustomed to giving feedback in weekly one to one meetings and through portals, filling out forms to systematically give structured performance reviews, which serve their purpose for seeing an overall picture of the success. But feedback should also be provided timely, giving it a few days or even weeks after the fact and context could be lost, forgotten, or misinterpreted.

With the huge number of tools available that enable efficiency, it’s critical that these do not get in the way of connecting as human beings.

Discipline and Flow

To make productions happen quickly, it takes large amount of discipline, timekeeping, and accountability, as well as what psychologist Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’—a way of working where you are totally absorbed in the task. The end is a high sense of personal and professional satisfaction.

Creating flow in a business environment is not the most natural thing to do. In technology-driven workplaces, it can be even easier to neglect moments of connection. Being ‘always on’ means we can get things done quickly, but being connected at all times often means being connected with those outside of the room - rather than with the person sitting next to you.

All businesses have deadlines to meet and while technology has enabled us to work with more speed and agility, what makes businesses run is, ultimately, people. By making sure we take time to slow down as well as move fast, we ensure that the ‘show will always go on’.

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