LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP
Written by Mike Cluff, Theatre Three Board Chair
When I moved back to Dallas in 2014, I was fortunate enough to be my company’s representative in a program called Leadership Arts Institute. The program is a yearlong indoctrination to learning the best practices in nonprofit board leadership. The thought is if you are a business leader then surely a nonprofit could benefit from your participation on their board. (It’s not that sardonic, but for the proposes of me making my point, let’s keep going…)
My path to Theatre Three was neither direct nor intentional. Prior to joining, I could count the number of plays I had seen in my lifetime on both hands. And that was after living in New York for six years. I only saw two shows while I was there, and both were off-off-off Broadway. I had only seen one play at Theatre Three before deciding to join the board. I still remember it – The Liar. I didn’t know anyone on the Board, and only “knew” one person on the staff – Merri Brewer. Merri had presented at a session of my LAI course, and I was immediately inspired by her enthusiasm and passion. Although we didn’t meet that day, her energy for Theatre Three made me think it was one of the places I wanted to join.
Despite my 12-month deep dive into nonprofit leadership and inherit leadership acumen (that’s sarcasm and self-deprecating humor for those of you who don’t know me), I was still nervous about joining Theatre Three. “I’m just an architect,” I thought “What could I contribute?” Turns out plenty. We’ve had sanitary sewer issues, roof leaks, run-down air conditioners, our home has been nearly sold twice, and actually sold once. Through all of it my business experience was beneficial to the organization and I was able to contribute in a way that made me feel a part of something (everyone wants that). What I didn’t expect going in and what I now understand are the lessons in leadership that being a part of a nonprofit arts organization have imparted on me.
This tenet of leadership is often misunderstood. People mistakenly think that leaders are served by the other members of the organization. The truth is completely the opposite. Great leaders serve those around them. Theatre Three has three pillars – audience, actors, and authors. T3’s mission reflects this fact and our Artistic Director, Jeffrey Schmidt, lives this tenet in everything he does. Since being hired as the Artistic Director he has led with service to local authors by continuing the Monday Night Playwright series, engaging local talent to produce work on our main stage, and constantly endeavoring to improve the experience for each audience member when they attend a show. (when you finally can come back to T3, look around the room and notice all of the improvements – most were Jeffrey’s idea, or at least he was there helping every time.)
This tenet of leadership is on constant display with any arts organization and is the barrier for entry with our Artistic Team, but the real creativity I’ve seen from our staff has been led by Charlie Beavers, the Executive Director. Charlie has been tremendously creative in his approach to allocating funds and for keeping our staff stay busy while the Theatre is not allowed to be open to the public. He has optioned and studied the budget to the greatest degree possible to make sure that every dime we spend is used effectively and generates the greatest result. And he has done it multiple times. Imagine trying to forecast revenue and expenses during a pandemic. His work is incredible and his ability to generate ideas is endless.
Every single time I have erred or failed in performing as a Board member it is because I lost track of this tenet. The most recent example is during this pandemic. When Covid-19 forced me to work from home, socially distance, and change how I did almost everything in my life, I withdrew completely. I forgot that there were others out there that didn’t have a job that allowed them to work remotely. They didn’t have a loved one at home they could lean on. They didn’t have a home that allowed for more than one person to be on Zoom all day. But maybe more notably, they didn’t have someone who just checked in with them and asked the simple question – “how are you doing?” The staff reminded me that leading with empathy is critical and more important than ever. They are a close group, made only closer my how much they care of each other.
- TEAM BUILDING
This tenet is the sum of the whole, and probably most important. When Jeffrey suggested that Theatre Three hire an Associate Artistic Director the question was “why?” Since Christie Vela has come on board it has been obvious why he wanted her here so badly. Christie isn’t the voice asking, “have you thought about this instead?” she screams “have you thought about doing this better or that more?” Christie’s addition has inspired a great many more things from the team and helping to lead Theatre Three back to its place of prominence in the Community (I use capital ‘C’ because I don’t just think it’s Dallas; our goals are bigger than that.). And there are other team members who contribute in ways that are integral and meaningful to our organization. I don’t know them all as well as I should, but I’m better for being around what they are doing.
Looking back now I realize I when I joined the board that I had it all wrong – I thought the big impact would be imparted by me onto the organization, instead I’m impacted by Theatre Three. Turns out the things I thought would really matter, don’t really matter when it comes to being on a Board. I have learned what matters most is showing up (Service), pitching in (Creativity), supporting the team (Empathy), and being a part of something besides yourself (Team Building). Looking ahead, I can’t predict where all this will go, but I am so proud of the team at Theatre Three and the things they are doing even now (I mean, did you see The Immigrant? Don’t worry, you’ll get another chance). We are working with the new owners of the Quad to improve our location. We are growing our building focused on making it easier to attend our shows. We are working with other arts organizations to collaborate in new and exciting ways (more on that later). Everyone here is taking each day at a time, focused on what we can do, and what we can control. We are committed to bringing you thought provoking, challenging, and memorable productions that inspire you.
That’s real leadership. And I’m lucky to be learning about it more and more.