Last week, ASC Education embarked on a bit of an experiment by holding our first-ever week-long Leadership Seminar. We’ve been holding shorter seminars, anywhere from a quarter-day to two full days, since 2003, but this was our first go at expanding that model. A group of professionals from International Paper joined us Monday evening through Friday afternoon for a week examining persuasive techniques in Shakespeare’s plays, practicing communication and presentation skills, and exploring problem-solving techniques in teams.
The group consisted of individuals from many facets of the company – sales, IT, marketing, transit, legal, food services – and was truly international, with members from China, Venezuela, India, and Poland. Most of this group had little to no experience with Shakespeare, and for those international participants, it was literally a foreign language to them. So we had quite a challenge ahead of us, to get this group not only to see what Shakespeare could teach them about leadership, but to get them to have a good time doing it.
It totally worked, and in large part precisely because of Shakespeare’s stagecraft. All we had to do was show them the tools; once they got those down, they could see all the directions that he writes into his plays – everything from prop needs to movement to emotions to status markers. With that empowerment behind them, they easily grew out of their fear and into not just appreciation of but enthusiasm for Shakespeare’s plays.
|Leadership Seminar participants from International Paper, back three rows, with ASC coaches and staff, front row.
Photo by Ralph Alan Cohen
We structured our week as follows: Each morning, we examined “Shakespeare’s Models of Leadership,” examples of effective or ineffective leaders in Shakespeare. This included everyone from the obvious examples and heavy hitters – Henry V, Richard III, Antony – to less-overt or less-well-known examples of leadership and communication: Claudius, Feste, Jack Cade, Beatrice. The IP group got to watch our talented actors present scenes and monologues, and then Ralph talked through them, drawing attention to particular points of persuasion, audience appeal, personal presentation, and other aspects of communication. These examples gave us a ground level to start from and a common experience to point back at as examples throughout our other activities.
Early in the week, the group also heard from a few real-life, modern-day experts in communication and leadership, including Ronald Heifetz, the co-founder of and senior lecturer at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University and author or co-author of several important books on leadership, including Leadership without Easy Answers, Leadership on the Line, and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and the World. In his lecture, Heifetz talked about a leader needing to be able to “look down from the balcony” – referring to the ability to step back and look at the big picture. That language stuck with the group throughout the week. Again and again, they considered the benefits of standing apart from a situation, taking up residence on that imaginary balcony and exploring the advantages the new viewpoint provided them. Several of the participants mentioned Heifetz’s lecture as a critical component to the week, providing them with inspiration and with some concrete ideas to return to as they worked through their own leadership styles.
In the rest of the day, we explored language analysis and presentation in two ways. The first was by having the participants construct, practice, review, and alter “challenge statements” – brief descriptions of some challenge they are facing in their professional or personal lives. Confused? Here’s one that one of our actor-coaches, Gregory Jon Phelps, wrote during our planning sessions, which we gave to the IP group as an example:
“When presented with the task of writing this Challenge Statement, it seemed at first to be an easy assignment; its purpose clear, structure simple, and design helpful toward fully understanding the participants’ experience. However, the actual creation and construction of this statement, given all the possible subjects from which to choose, has, indeed, proven to be a challenge. The solution is simple: set aside the time it will take to write the statement, be alert and focused, and a subject will come to mind. It still seems easier said than done, though, since it is the actual deed itself, not the theoretical planning, that must be completed. Once the time has been blocked off, all other distractions have been dealt with properly, and an environment conducive to writing has been established, I’m confident that I will be inspired with a subject, that it will be effortless to write the statement, and that it will prove to be no challenge at all, but, in fact, quite fun.“
The goal is to be simple, succinct, and persuasive – to be concise, but to make a strong point. We gave our participants a lot of different things to consider. Who might their intended audience be? How can they appeal to that audience? Are numerical details important? Or a personal anecdote? Do they want to present a problem and then suggest a solution? Or just focus on the problem itself? There are a lot of options; the goal is for the participants to find the approach that will work best for them, to find the way to tell the story they most want to tell. Working through these, we asked the participants to consider both their physical and vocal presentation, using lessons learned from the coaches as well as from Doreen Bechtol’s morning warm-up sessions, as well as the structure of their thoughts, their word choice, patterns of speech, and specificity of language.
The second exploration challenged the participants to put together scenes out of cue scripts. In many ways, this involved leadership in practice more strongly than anything else they did during the week. Due to the nature of cue scripts, each member of the team only had part of the information necessary to build the scene, so they had to figure out how to communicate their needs to each other. The exercise also stresses the importance of listening, since one character might have embedded stage directions not in their own lines, but in what someone else says.
Both of these challenges made some of our participants pretty nervous on the first day. I could see the standard markers of hesitation and fear. We strove to combat those reactions by creating safe spaces for experimentation, and part of that meant starting in smaller, non-threatening groups. We started the week in small groups of three or four participants, attached to one coach (myself or one of the six actors working with us through the week: Miriam Donald Burrows, John Harrell, Daniel Kennedy, Gregory Jon Phelps, René Thornton Jr., and Jeremy West). Those small groups worked through both the challenge statements and the cue scripts on Tuesday. Then, on Wednesday, we teamed up into groups of five and six, with two coaches: slightly wider range of feedback for challenge statement, slightly larger and more complex scenes to work through. Thursday, we glommed further into groups of ten and twelve, with three or four coaches, and on Friday morning, the entire group presented their final challenge statements and final scenes. This structure allowed the experience to build from simple to complex, as well as fostering the participants’ increased confidence each step of the way.
|IP participants rehearse a scene from Julius Caesar,
with acting coach Daniel Kennedy visible, lower right.
Photo by Cass Morris
It was amazing to watch. On Tuesday, my group members needed a lot of help from me. The coaches weren’t meant to direct, but I found that I did need to ask a lot of leading questions about both the challenge statements and the scenes. Is there another way you can try that? Was that a conscious choice, or an accident? Is there a place you can choose to move? What in the text tells you that? Who are you saying that to? So, too, my group had a lot of questions for me – about the language, about pronunciation, about character relationships. I gave them only the bare necessities, nudging them to look in the text for clues.
And they got there. By Friday morning, with four coaches in the room, they barely needed us at all. Many times, I would notice myself or one of the other three coaches in the room start to open our mouths to suggest something or to ask a question – only to shut them again because the group had already gotten there, had already found the clue in the text. The language was no longer a barrier. They were hunting out clues, listening for embedded stage directions, considering the stage picture and the requirements of the scene, making decisions about who could and should stand where, and when they should move. I could hardly keep from bouncing with glee, it was such a thrill to watch them, knowing how far they had come in just a couple of days. What’s more – they were laughing their way through it, enjoying even the errors, making big and bold choices and delighting in the process. I love things like this, because it verifies what we claim about Shakespeare – that he wrote those clues into the text, that he wrote for actors, with the ideas of staging in mind.
Over the course of the week, we coaches became pretty attached to our groups. Having the privilege of seeing a group through from Day 1 to Day 5 was incredible, and when one of “mine” nailed something in a presentation, I felt a burst of pride (and sometimes couldn’t stop from doing a joyous fist-pump in the air). As we merged with other groups, it was also great to see how their members had evolved, what challenges they had faced that were similar to or different from ours, and how they integrated those ideas when working together.
The final challenge statements were a world apart from where the participants had started at the beginning of the week. Instead of mumbling voices, shuffling feat, hunched shoulders, and aimless sentences, we had bold tones, clear enunciation, excellent posture, straight backs, and focused statements. From hesitancy and obfuscation, we got confidence and clarity. (And, as a bonus, I think we all learned something about both the mechanics and the business of producing paper). The best part, though, was that I could sense the confidence our participants had gained over the week. At the beginning of the week, it had been a bit like drawing teeth to get anyone to volunteer to speak. By Friday morning, they were queuing up, eagerly anticipating their turns to take the stage.
One of the most touching moments was when one of the Chinese participants gave her final speech. She hadn’t been in any of my working groups, so I hadn’t had the opportunity to see her through that process of evolution. Instead, I got to see a night-and-day difference. The first day, she had been shy, uncomfortable with presenting in a foreign language, apologizing for herself (even though, as we pointed out, absolutely no one was judging her, since she certainly knows more English than any of us know Mandarin). On the last day, she delivered her challenge statement in Chinese, rather than in English. Having no Chinese myself, I didn’t understand a word, but I could still see a world of difference in her presentation. She was confident, she stood tall and straight, and even though I didn’t know what her words meant, I could tell which ones were important. She was choosing places to pause, choosing where to get louder or softer, and using her body to tell the same story of emphasis as her words. It was remarkable, and I know I wasn’t the only one getting a little choked up, seeing how far she – and all the others in the group – had come.
Following those scenes, we had one last conversation with the whole group, and here, the participants confirmed a lot of what I’d been seeing in practice. Getting to hear, in their own words, what this week had meant for them and what they had learned was incredibly valuable, and also quite touching. Several of them found the cue script exercises to be valuable, particularly for what it taught about giving and receiving focus, about when it’s a leader’s job to speak, and when it’s a leader’s job to listen. Others had awakened to the value of trying out a speech different ways, with different inflections or different word choices, of playing around with the language, and of giving themselves permission to try something that might not work in order to find the thing that would. Still others appreciated the opportunity to be vulnerable and to go through the process of self-auditing and reflection. They talked about the value of asking questions, of showcasing different aspects of communication, of learning about different kinds of leaders, and of finding inspiration in unexpected places.
One of the greatest joys in my job is getting to see people awaken to both the great value and the great joy of Shakespeare, and last week demonstrated both of those as thoroughly as I could imagine. Expanding the Leadership program to a full week gave me and the other coaches the opportunity to see the transformative nature of this kind of work. Best of all, throughout the entire week, I never heard a single person say, “No, I can’t do this” or “No, I won’t do this.” Skeptical as they were at the outset, they were still willing to try – and once they took that first step, the infinite variety lay ahead, just waiting for them. I can’t wait to do it again.