What A Theater Group Taught Me About Leadership

So picture this: it’s 6:30pm last Tuesday, I’m up in a theater studies rehearsal room in Westwood, I’m barefoot in jogging bottoms and a t-shirt and a tiny 5’3″ girl is holding my upside down and swinging me over her shoulder. And this is a university lecture.

A lecture in Styles of Coaching and Team Leadership to be exact and we’re working with some awesome guys from Highly Sprung. This couldn’t be further away from the dry, bland biomed lectures I was stuck in 5 years ago when I first started at Warwick. They were basically hour after hour of being talked at while I starred blankly at pictures of protein structures that I barely understood; I mean sure, all those swirly strands are pretty but what do they mean?!

Protein structure - pretty but dull
Apparently this was supposed to mean more to me than just looking like a bundle of party poppers…

This module, as part of my Management degree, could not be more different and I love it! So far we’ve played pattern games, had a talk from a midwife and watched (a video of) a baby being born, eaten jelly beans and generally just had a lot of fun. And this week was my favourite session so far!

Getting To Know Each Other…

It started with the whole group stood in a huge circle and we all had to go round and say our names… ok, fine I’m good with that. Next we had to say our names with feeling, to tell everyone something about us. Everyone starts gesturing wildly, speaking loudly or practically singing their names and I panic. I forget everything about who I am and when I remember, how am I supposed to express that with my voice? There are only like 7 people in front of me, it’s coming round quickly, what do I do?! I suddenly freeze up, cover my face and squeak ‘Rachel’ while awkwardly giggling. And somehow, while it’s maybe not how I want everyone to see me, it’s a pretty accurate representation of how I’m feeling. I’m super-uncomfortable with most physical things like sport or dance and I’m not good at anything which involves being my self. Ask me to present something in front of hundreds of people and I’m fine. Ask me to run 100m in front of 1 stranger and I’ll be practically crying. This is pushing me way out of my comfort zone and now everyone knows.

We move on, we start an exercise involving walking through the circle and calling people’s names, except it turns out (as we’re still a relatively new class) that no one really knows anyone and it’s crazy-awkward. Mark, who’s leading the session, quickly realises this and adapts his strategy getting us all to start associating people’s names with other things; someone looks like a rugby player with the same name, some people he just makes some slight-pun like ‘OK Kay!’ and then gets us to go back to shouting each others names. After 10 or 15 minutes we’re all running around getting to know each other and all feeling just as silly as each other and celebrating when we get each other’s names right ‘Kris..?’ ‘Yes!…Rebecca?’ ‘Nearly, Rachel!’ and so on. It was a silly little thing but afterwards we all felt like we knew each other a lot better.

Movement Begins

Next up we get into rows and start doing these jumping exercises to music. 7 jumps on the spot then jump around, 5 jumps on the spot and turn, 3 jumps and turn, 1 jump and turn, turn. Sounds simple, except I have no rhythm and kept messing up. I remember things like this happening at school; people in my class would get annoyed at me, teachers would tut and I’d feel like I wanted to die, like I shouldn’t be there but none of that happened this time.

No one even noticed when I messed up, Mark and Ben, were super helpful in counting us through each step until we all got it and were doing it together and when I did mess up I was able to just laugh it off.

Next we worked in groups to move from one area of the room to another, we had rules like ‘3 people have to go across but only 2 legs and 2 hands can be on the floor’ which resulted in a 2 person, hopping human wheelbarrow. Some were a lot more difficult and required a bit of thinking about but Mark kept reassuring us there was no right or wrong way to do this, so no one was worrying about how silly we all looked and everyone just got into it and made it across that lava floor!

The next activities included practicing group lifts and working in pairs to start to lift each other and ‘throw’ each other around the room. This is where Kay, who is a good couple of inches smaller than me managed to hold me completely upside down and not drop me on my head. That said, we I did manage to fall over a couple of times but again, just laughed it off. There were a couple of moves I was struggling with so when Mark came over we helped us out and showed us how to do it in a really simple way.

By the end of the session I’d pretty much forgotten all about how insecure and shy I felt at the beginning of the 2 hours. I’d been rolling around on the floor, laughing and lifted up into the air in too many ways to count and I’d had so much fun!

So What Does Any Of This Have To Do With Coaching / Leadership?

The great thing about this session was that in the 2 hours we had perhaps 15 minutes of time discussing theory but I still came away feeling like I understood so much more than I would have if we’d been sat in a lecture room for 2 hours.

It was great to actually experience the techniques being used and understand how they work by being both the subject and the coach (when explaining someone else in the class how to do a lift / one of the activities for example). It’s easy enough to be told ‘managers/leaders/coaches/teachers must adapt quickly’ but that doesn’t really mean a lot until you see it in action – look back at how awkward the first group activity was when none of us knew each other’s names. Mark could have just been like ‘well lets carry on with this awkward thing that isn’t working because it was on the schedule…’ and it would have affect the entire rest of the session, probably not in a good way. But he didn’t. Instead he changed the activity slightly and introduced new ones to make things easier for us and it worked; we all felt way more relaxed and comfortable!

Similarly, it made me understand the importance of good rapport between coach and client; throughout the session Mark had been joking with us all, referring to each of us by name and asking us little questions about ourselves until we all felt comfortable with him. That’s why I was completely comfortable with him when we picked me and swung me over his shoulder up to show me and Kay how to do one of the lifts – there’s no way I would have felt ok doing that right at the beginning of the session. Like with any style of coaching building up trust is important but when there’s a physical element to it, whether it’s in theater or dance, sport or medicine it’s essential.

As I mentioned before this was easily my favourite lecture of the year (if not from my entire time at uni) so far, so a huge thank you to Ashley for organising it and to the guys at Highly Sprung for coming along to work with us.

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