Leadership Lessons From Gilbert & Sullivan

This is a refreshed version of a post written a couple of years ago. It reminds me that leadership can be found everywhere… and is necessary, no matter what your occupation.


Recently, I watched a movie called Topsy Turvy.  This 1999 production tells a story of Gilbert and Sullivan and the events that led up to the creation of The Mikado, a 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:

People 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 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.  The truth is, it is collaborative effort that brings a one-dimensional idea to life and helps it to stand the test of time.

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 their individual capabilities, strengths and limitations. 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 evening’s performance and before anyone in the company was allowed to leave, Gilbert, Sullivan and Carte, the theatre manager, held a meeting.  At this meeting, they each discussed how the performance was executed from their own particular perspectives.  First, they talked about what went well, praised the performers and thanked them for their efforts.   Then, through discussion, they changed some things to 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

At one point in the movie, 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, but that’s a different conversation.  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 asks if the rest of the company agrees.  Aside from the company sycophant, who assures Mr. Gilbert that none of this was his idea, they unanimously reply, “Yes, we do!”

Mr. Gilbert then 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.

That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?

Oh, and just for fun, here is the finale of the Mikado for your viewing pleasure.


1 Comment

Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leading Teams, motivating & Inspiring, Organizational Effectiveness

One response to “Leadership Lessons From Gilbert & Sullivan

  1. Pingback: Leadership Lessons From Gilbert & Sullivan | BOH Leadership Articles | Scoop.it

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