I had the privilege of spending a few days listening to my brother-in-law’s stories about his work as a master carpenter for large stage productions in LA. He recently retired after creating and managing amazing sets for the likes of Shirley Maclaine, Elizabeth Taylor, Lily Tomlin, Jethro Tull. The life he described is very unfamiliar to me and it was fascinating to hear about the technology, planning and execution that goes on behind the scenes.
He told a story about a production for a very demanding director whose reputation was well known for fits of anger. The production required the automation and manual handling of several sets that moved frequently, and often within ½ inch of each other. As I understand it, many sets are actually computer coded to move on cue while others have to be moved. Coordination of this is intricate and exacting, and a misstep has serious consequences for the reputation of the production, not to mention the stagehands responsible for making it happen.
The first night went off flawlessly. Bill’s team nailed it, and the director, never known for compliments, told Bill that he did a “great job.” Bill said, “I didn’t do it, they did,” acknowledging his team.
The context of this story arose out of a casual conversation about leadership. Bill was musing about how the “kids”, the young generation of stagehands, would sometimes come to the theater with their shoes untied or their hands in their pockets. He talked about how he set expectations early in the preparation for each show – telling his team exactly what he expected – professionalism. He said that having your shoes untied says, “I don’t care about being professional.” And standing around with your hand in your pockets says, “I’m not really motivated.”
Bill said he told them, “Motivation is a way of life. Either you are motivated to do good work or you are not, and if you are not, you don’t belong in my theater.” He told his team, “There’s not a lot of time for laughing and joking while we are working, but we can have a great time when we’re done.” He said he never chewed anyone out in public, but when someone was called to his office, folks knew what was going on.
Bill doesn’t brag; it just isn’t in his DNA. His telling of this story was not intended to showcase his leadership expertise; not sure he even thought about it in those terms. He was just reminiscing about his time in the theater. But oh, what great lessons were contained in his story. I saw a few…
No one told him that shoes should be tied or hands should be out of pockets. There wasn’t a written policy that he could refer to; he referred to his own vision of professionalism. And he had the courage to be consistent and disciplined. He had a clever way of pointing out when a team member was not meeting expectations. He stopped what he was saying, looked at the individual, and the rest of the team then said, “Your hands are in your pockets.”
Is having your hands in your pockets or your shoes untied a really big issue? Well, untied shoes are a safety hazard, but pockets….maybe not so much. But he had a vision of professionalism, he owned his own and the work of his team, and he knew that letting the little things slide can easily lead to letting the big things slide. Then you have chaos.
Bill described the intense amount of preparation, review and collaboration that had to go into those automated and manual moving sets. He said that the director had not really expected to get it right on the first night. That it wouldn’t work perfectly didn’t even dawn on Bill. His job was to do it right, and he was going to do his job.
As I understand it, the LA stagehands community is pretty close knit, and folks work together on different projects throughout their whole career. They know each other well, sometimes being the team leader, and others being on the team.
What was fascinating to me was the passion with which he described his belief that, when he was the team lead, it didn’t matter the relationship with the members of the team. The team would get the job done and everyone would pull their weight. He understood that leadership is a responsibility; one that comes before everything else. Once the job was done, they could go back to laughing and joking, but not until then.
When a director, particularly a hard to please director, offers a compliment, it can easily be tempting to simply say, “Thanks.” But it’s far better to say, “I didn’t do it, they did.”
This is raw leadership
I have developed leaders my whole career. As I listened to Bill’s stories, what struck me was how confident he was in defining and enforcing his personal vision of professionalism. Too often these days, I see leaders struggle to articulate expectations, and look to policies and HR to tell them how to lead.
I really like the simplicity of confidently defining what outcome you expect, and holding people accountable – consistently in things big and small. If your expectations are that you and your team will complete the job as promised, and everything you do as a leader goes toward that end, it’s really pretty simple.