Creative Leadership – Directing Principles


The business world can learn a great deal about how to lead creative teams from the work of theatre directors. Over the last 18 months I hheld interviews with a series of terrifc theatre directors.

From these conversations and building on my own knowledge and experience of both worlds, there are 8 Principles that hold true for leading teams of actors that also have great relevance in other fields.

This is the second of two blogs on Creative Leadership (you can read the first of those blogs here) and look out for our new 4D Leader Masterclass podcasts where Matt will be speaking to theatre directors about their leadership philosophy and process.


5. Being Adaptive and Empathic

Sarah Esdaile: “There’s an aspect to being a director that is finding where the Venn diagram is between how they like to work and how you would like to work. Sometimes you can end up with what feels like quite different processes in one play and sometimes you’re almost not the same director with different people.”

The theatre director, like a leader in any field, must be adaptable to the situation she is working in and the people she leads. She is empathic, sensitive to the different personalities in the rehearsal room and will apply different techniques to differentiate in the rehearsal room to bring the best out of her team.

The director develops these ‘tools’ in the same way as any leader – through formal training, through the plays she has seen, the experience she has had and the feedback she receives. Unlike in business the director is rarely lucky enough to have the opportunity to get feedback about her work in the rehearsal room – we normally have to wait until the audience lets us know how successful we have or haven’t been!

How do you develop your own toolbox? How aware are you of the way you approach the different personalities in your team? How naturally does this come and are there areas you can work on to improve your range as a leader?

Liz Stevenson: “Someone said to me once it’s all instinct that’s all that’s all it is you can read 1000 books you can watch 1000 plays and all about parts but ultimately your instinct is you… I think developing a toolkit and experience massively helps of course, but it made me go ‘alright I’ve made choices before and they’ve worked so there’s something about my instinct that’s there and that works.”

6. Stimulating Creativity

Sue Dunderdale: “Very few actors do not want to be pushed. If they don’t want to be pushed at all then you’ve made a mistake in casting. If you can’t produce the bad ideas and the stuff that doesn’t work, you’re not going to get to the stuff that does.”

Creativity is, paradoxically, best released when it is ‘bound’ in some way. Structure is vital and within that the confident, creative leader understands that people need both stimulus and space to play, explore and discover.

If all I have at the end of a rehearsal period is the version of the play I saw in my head before we began, I have failed. I have failed to use the experience and intelligence of all the people I am collaborating with, I have failed to inspire them, and I have failed to create an environment where the actors and designers are able to produce their best work.

The director provides stimulus by asking questions, framing ‘constraints’ (“What if…”) and posing scenarios. The same can be true in business. What if we doubled our pricing – what would be the impact? What types of new customers would we gain, what reputation would our product gain/lose? What if we stopped all press advertising? What if we combined our leading product with x?

It takes great confidence to allow your team to self-discover rather than fixing an early ‘result’ to calm your own fears or satisfy a nervous cast. There’s little point hiring creative people and then telling them what to do, or, even worse, doing it yourself.

How much time do you spend asking provocative questions about the basic assumptions of your business? The answers may not immediately suggest a ground-breaking new initiative, but encouraging your team to think imaginatively and creatively, can provide an environment where boldness of thought is positively embraced and is more likely to generate the exciting new ideas of the future.

Liz Stevenson: “It’s play. Keep Playing. Keep trying. Keep exploring. Keep Discovering. It’s never finished. it should never be a finished product. You want to get to a place where you can repeat it in some way, but in the rehearsal room it should never feel fixed. You want them to know there’s a shape, but it should always have a sense of, ‘we’re still learning, still developing, still progress


7. Providing Constructive Feedback


Natasha Rickman: “I think I’ve been really struck by watching other directors in terms of how much psychology there is involved. When I was an actor, I assumed you get the note [from the director] when they think of it, but there are times when it’s not the right time to give the note, or that actually you don’t need to give that note because you know that performer will get to that stage later..”

The director is careful with their language and the balance of challenge, critique and praise, whilst assuming that all are seeking to achieve excellence – an assumption of positive intent.

So he gives feedback that is specific and constructive to help the actors adjust, using a mixture of intellectual, emotional and physical stimulus and in so doing they provide both specific feedback and praise commitment to the ‘process’, what is in the actor’s control, as much as the final ‘result’.

To produce excellent work actors must stretch themselves by approaching scenes, lines, moments in many different ways. If they’re good the results will always be fruitful. If, however, the actor feels that genuine attempts to try something bold will be met by dismissal or, even worse humiliation, they will sink back into a shell of safe, often clichéd performances.

A calm attitude and nurturing environment provide safety and confidence. In theatre rehearsals, ‘offer and feedback’ is constant – not held back for 1-1’s or appraisals. Feeding back positively is vital. Repeating back to an actor what they did ‘wrong’ is largely pointless and likely to dishearten or irritate. Instead we positively encourage the actor to move on with a new suggestion or idea.

We must also be careful of delivering praise as this can also have unintended consequences.

I directed a play several years ago where a particular moment called for the actor to reach an emotionally heightened state – plenty of tears… In one rehearsal he nailed it and I (enthusiastic and generous director that I was) praised him to the skies. Whilst on the surface this seemed like fine leadership – reinforce and publicly celebrate the success – what it resulted in was the actor trying too hard in future rehearsals and performances to recapture the RESULT rather than simply be alive to what was happening with the characters and himself in the moment each time the scene was done.

Unfortunately, his acting then became over-done and untruthful the more desperate he became to deliver what I had praised so highly. Instead of praising the result I should have praised his commitment and not made him feel that delivering the tears was the only marker of his success.

Is there an opportunity for you, likewise, to celebrate the process that your staff are committing to, rather than the result? In business the result can often be out of our control, but the process we are following each day (the sales calls, the marketing communications, the relationships we build) is not. We might end up praising a lazy salesperson who hits target based on a ‘bluebird’ and criticising another who is building a disciplined sales process that will eventually pay off with sustainable results.

Are you finding time to give constructive feedback, with the right balance of coaching rather than ‘telling’, to help your team grow and ultimately become more confident and self-sufficient?

Sarah Esdaile: It’s a kind of exciting discourse between us that I’m saying, “You’re really skilled and you’re already doing great work and here is something that might make that even better”, it’s about that collaboration – it’s not about point scoring or one upmanship.”


8. Having Humility and Humour

Natasha Rickman: “You will just have a better time and do better work if you have some humility. You need to take it seriously but not yourself and I’m still early in career as a director. There is no point pretending that I’m perfect and I know everything. You have to have some confidence in yourself (otherwise why you taking this room full of people on a journey?) but that is different to letting your ego get out of control.” 

The good director, like the good leader in sporting, military or business fields, needs emotional control and patience. These are vital in the projection of authority. The director’s energy is the most crucial in the room, she understands that her energy provides an example to the team and so cultivates the ability to excite with enthusiasm and engender calm in a crisis.

Laughter is a vital part of the creative process. There are countless studies demonstrating the importance of fun in enhancing creativity, especially when it is focused in some way. So, good directors approach work with humour but also with the self-confidence and humility to admit errors. By doing so, and therefore demonstrating vulnerability, leaders can suggest to their teams that the errors they also make, when in the pursuit of excellence, will not be met with criticism, but with feedback and coaching. This makes them more likely to embrace creativity and take calculated risks in the future – and without needing to seek continual permission from the leader.

Many leaders bemoan the fact that their teams seem unwilling to take initiative. What are you doing to create an atmosphere where this seems possible – how are you creating permission and responsibility?

And the serious business of business doesn’t mean it can’t also be fun. Indeed recent studies have shown that a happy work environment boosts productivity meaning fewer sick days, smarter working and reduced waste.

How conscious are we of creating fun in the workplace? That doesn’t mean throwing a few bean bags around the office. Are their opportunities to remove the grind which drains morale from people’s work.

Are you able to bring your team together for activities that are not always work related, can you inject moments of fun into each day and each meeting – perhaps simple icebreakers (challenges and problem solving games) as well improvisation exercises (which will also aid collaboration and creativity).

Sarah Esdaile:  I think humour is really important. When I was younger I think I thought I had to fix everything. You’re not saying it’s all me and you’re not saying it’s all them – you’re saying, ‘we’ve made this together’, and it’s very strange being a director because it’s a bit like parenting, but ultimately all of your work is in other people’s hands. Which is frustrating too!

The team at 4D have over 50 years of theatre experience, coupled with strong business backgrounds; we have a passion and expertise for psychology and a practice grounded in Integral Theory. 

Through our work on Communication, Wellbeing and Team Performance we bring simple and clear tools combining our experience to businesses across the world. If you’d like to explore how the 4D tools can help bring these principles to life for your team, please contact Matt Beresford on