Managing and Leading…Lessons from Gilbert & Sullivan

I watched a movie yesterday called Topsy Turvy.  This 1999 production tells a story of Gilbert and Sullivan.  The story starts, as their professional relationship seems to be on the wane, having just completed an opera bearing too much resemblance to the one that went before it.  They contemplate dissolving their partnership.  Then, they discover something new, as Gilbert is reluctantly dragged, (by his long-suffering wife), to see some Japanese entertainers perform.  It is there, that The Mikado is conceived. The rest of the story is about how they actually created, developed and presented this now, much celebrated opera.

While I was watching, I began to see the fundamental elements of management and leadership at play and to appreciate that no matter the endeavour, the principles of both are ever present

Here are some things I was reminded of:

Companies Work Best Together When They Sing From The Same Song Sheet.

Throughout the movie it became clear to me that no matter what was going on, the values of civility, respect and dignity underscored everything.  The principal leaders of the company were unceasingly polite and respectful toward one another.  This, of course, might have been the Victorian times in which they lived, but it struck me that both Gilbert and Sullivan as well as their business partner, D’Oyley Carte demonstrated these values consistently and effortlessly.  They set the tone for the rest of the company who followed suit without question.  And, I didn’t see a Values Statement hanging on a wall anywhere.

Outstanding Productions Require Collaboration

Can you imagine what The Mikado might have sounded like if Gilbert had written the libretto and Sullivan, the music for it without consulting each other?…something of a mess I shouldn’t wonder.  And yet, in so many organizations, one department will invariably act without consulting the other or a boss will make decisions without consulting the team.  Productions that pass the test of time are those built on solid foundations that include rich, diverse compositions of effort and opinion. It is collaborative effort that takes a one-dimensional idea and brings it to life.

Care About The Players

The company of players was comprised of a mixed group of artists all with their own special talents, needs and idiosyncrasies.  Gilbert and Sullivan recognized that in order to get the best performance from each, they needed to understand these things; to know what they were capable of delivering; their unique limitations; their great strengths.  They interacted with and encouraged both the principals of the production and members of the chorus to give what they knew them to be capable of giving.  And, they held each member to account for their behaviour and the quality of performance they delivered.

Examine The Performance

At the end of the premiere performance, Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte, the theatre manager, hold a meeting before anyone is allowed to leave.  Attendance by all company members is mandatory.  At this meeting, they each discuss how the performance was executed from their own particular perspectives.  They first talk about what went well.  They praise the performers and thank them for their efforts.  They acknowledge how tired they must be.  And, through discussion, they make changes that will enhance their overall performance the next time.   This is sometimes referred to as a post-mortem but whatever you call it, bringing the team together to discuss outcomes and changes, makes for a better result next time and also has a way of creating a feeling of solidarity among people

Criticize The Song, Not The Singer

During this post mortem meeting, Gilbert announces his intention to cut a song from the show.  There are sounds of disappointment among the company and sympathy expressed for the song’s performer.  The singer suggests to Mr Gilbert that while he doesn’t consider himself a great singer, he believes that he could make a better effort.  Mr. Gilbert responds by saying something like, “Sir, you misunderstand. You performed eminently well.  It is the song that is bad”

Often, making the distinction between the thing that isn’t working and the person who is working it is very important.  There are of course times when the thing is perfectly good and the performance of the person needs some work, which is a different conversation.  But, the lesson for me here is that being clear about what we are criticizing avoids a great deal of confusion and unnecessary angst.

Cling To Your Own Opinion At Your Peril

There is a great deal of sadness among the company when the song is cut from the show.  They all consider it a fine song and have empathy for the performer who continues to feel he has somehow failed.  As a consequence, a small group of players decide to approach Mr. Gilbert and ask him to consider re-instating the song.  This is something of a departure from normal custom in a patriarchal, benevolent dictatorship and yet this small group feels strongly enough to take a risk.  And so, in the presence of the entire company they present their case.  Mr. Gilbert remains quiet for some minutes.  He looks from one to the other earnest face and he asks if the rest of the company agree.  Aside from the company sycophant, who assures Mr. Gilbert that none of this was his idea, they unanimously reply, “Yes, we do!”

He asks the song’s performer if he would be ready and willing to perform the song.  Again, he receives an affirmative reply.   Mr. Gilbert remains unconvinced that the song is good but believes in the opinion of his company and so he allows the song back into the performance. That evening, the song receives considerable accolades from the audience.

This reminds me of the critical importance of listening.   It also confirms that even the most brilliant among us is wrong sometimes.  Clinging stubbornly to our own opinions can be critically damaging.

Just for fun here is the finale of the Mikado for your viewing pleasure.  Comments anyone?



Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Employee engagement, Leadership Values

9 responses to “Managing and Leading…Lessons from Gilbert & Sullivan

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Managing and Leading…Lessons from Gilbert & Sullivan « You’re Not the Boss of Me --

  2. I greatly enjoy the insights of your latest post, not least because I’m a Gilbert & Sullivan fan, and owner of the “Topsy Turvy” movie, given to me by a friend.

    Last week, I wrote a short post on my blog which would probably get up the nose of many mainstream leadership gurus and commentators, but I genuinely believe that much of the published leadership material is not very useful for middle managers. If you’re interested, you can read it here:

    Having been in general management positions for some 20 years, and having managed staff for more than 28 years, I a little inside knowledge.

    You do a much better job with your blog than mine, but then again I’m much less focused. All the best to your great blog.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Alan,

      First, I love the name of your blog. “Random Thoughts of a Distracted Mind”. And, I can relate to it as well! I particularly like how you make the distinction in your latest post between being a *designated leader* and *leadership*. It is a difference that can be subtle enough to miss and important enough to understand.
      Thank you for your kind remarks and for coming by!

  3. Gwyn – I loved this post. It brings together so many important strands, especially the hugely important ability to listen, so overlooked in many environments today.

    In many business arenas the power of noise is overly revered ( IMHO) as we are all advised to make ourselves heard. This eventually becomes a buzz of white noise with everyone tuning out. The person who listens and then speaks is never to be underestimated – but quite often is. It also take a big person ( metaphorically speaking) to admit they are wrong.

    Excellent parable.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Dorothy,

      I know what you mean. Perhaps if we did less *talking* about listening and just *listened* we would be a lot further ahead. To your point though, we first have to learn to place a greater value on it.

      Thanks for adding your *two cents* to the post and for the greater value it always brings.

  4. Leslie

    I just had to read this, being a big G&S fan (and especially of The Mikado). I loved the movie as well, Jim Broadbent being one of my favourite actors. What great inspiration for a post. Who knew there were leadership lessons to be learned from this film — thanks for your insight!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Leslie,

      Yes, who knew? There are some films that just strike a note and this was one of them.

      Thanks for coming by. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂

  5. Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best independent business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.

    Wally Bock

  6. Pingback: MAPping Company Success

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