What Does a Leader Do When Things Go Wrong?

Years ago I was hired to direct a play at a theatre that made its money and reputation on very mainstream plays and musicals. They were branching out into some lesser-known works that were more of a risk with their core audience, and the company brought me in for one of these plays.

Our rehearsal process was delightful. The cast was just two actors, and we spent long days in the rehearsal room doing a deep dive into the complexities of these two characters and the intricacies of the story. Finally, we moved into the theatre, added lights, sound, props, and costumes, and started putting the finishing touches on the show in time for opening.

The day before opening night, the cast and I worked through some notes in the morning, ran through the play in the afternoon, then broke for dinner. After dinner we would have the final dress rehearsal. As far as I was concerned, the show was ready.

I left the theatre to go to dinner, and an email pinged on my phone. It was from the artistic director, whom I had not seen at any point after I was hired. A staff member who had attended our afternoon rehearsal was concerned about the language in the play, and now he, the artistic director, wanted me to take all the profanity out of the script—before the audience arrived the next night. The email said he was too busy to come and meet with the cast, so would I just take care of it?

Leaving aside the legal issues here (when you get the licensing rights to a play, you agree that you are going to produce it as written), I was angry about several things. First, he chose the play, so it was his job to determine whether it was appropriate for his audience long before this point. Second, he was hiding behind an email, not calling or coming to meet with me even though this was a very big deal. Finally, he wanted to avoid being the bad guy with the cast, letting the buck stop with me instead.

The artistic director is the person who makes artistic decisions for a theatre company. This was his issue, from start to finish. After a few deep breaths, I picked up the phone and called him. I said that I had received his email, and that while I understood his concern, this wasn’t my decision to make. I invited him to come and sit down with the actors and tell them what he wanted to have happen, that we would start our final dress rehearsal later to make time for him. I also said that the actors were not going to like this; that the language in the play is intentional and part of how we understand these characters. In short, I let him know that I would not be the bad guy; I would not own his decision.

In the course of our phone call, it became clear that he really didn’t want to deal with this issue at all. He seemed surprised that I was pushing back, but I was clear that I was his freelance employee, not the leader. This situation was his to handle, I said: we’ll do it, but you have to come and tell us to do it.

This story has sat with me for years, and I think it’s because my clients tell me similar ones about bosses who shrink from the tough stuff. I get it—it’s human! Many people avoid tough conversations and hard choices, especially when they may make other people angry or disappointed. 

But.

A leader owns their decisions. A leader doesn’t only show up for the victories: they acknowledge their mistakes, and they face the difficult situations and conversations. Right now I have clients who are struggling with balancing budgets, potential layoffs, restructuring organizations, and giving bad news to people they know and like. But steering into those tough situations with humanity, vulnerability, clarity, and decisiveness is part of the job. That is how leaders earn our trust. 

In the end, the artistic director sent someone else to talk with the cast. The actors were dumbfounded at being asked to make huge changes at the last minute that sabotaged the integrity of the play, and they said they would not do it. I supported them. The marketing department asked the box office staff to make sure everyone who bought a ticket knew there was strong language in the play. The artistic director never spoke to me again.

I wish I could tell you that the artistic director learned a lesson, but I don’t have any evidence that he did. I do know that the theatre company and he parted ways a year or so later. The company replaced him with leadership  that knows how to face hard situations, have tough conversations, and own its decisions. So maybe there’s a happy ending here, after all.

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