Discretionary Effort...When the Show Must Go On

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Discretionary Effort...When the Show Must Go On

This past Sunday morning at 8:30, a leader named Ashley learned that a key member of her team had called in sick – totally legit –  quarantined with the flu, and would therefore not be at work that day for her 2:00 shift. Not good. 

OK, you say, people call in sick all the time. What’s the big deal? 

The big deal is that Ashley, a speech pathologist offstage, is also the director of a musical comedy, “City of Angels”, playing at Jacksonville Beach’s Players-by-the-Sea Theatre, for a three-week run, with a highly Committed cast and crew of more than 30. The stricken team member is an actor, cast in the dual roles of Donna and Oolie (lead characters), and the 2:00 shift is, in fact, the curtain time for that day’s matinee performance to a pretty well-sold house, with plenty of walkups expected, thanks to some rave reviews in the local press. 

This is community theatre. Volunteer work. Understudies are a luxury they don’t really have. If you’re familiar with this show (which won the Best Musical Tony in 1990), you know that the Donna/Oolie roles call for some challenging acting, dancing, and singing.  With little choice on such short notice, Director Ashley rolled up her sleeves and stepped in to perform the two roles. 

What happened next is a perfect example of what Bill Catlette and I have been talking about for better than a decade now – Discretionary Effort – doing that which we CHOOSE to do, not because we HAVE to, but because we WANT to. 

While Ashley was busy memorizing and practicing dialogue, songs, and choreography she’d never performed, and trying to find costumes to fit, word came that yet another cast member, one who played three smaller, but critical roles, had also been sidelined with the flu. Curtain was in less than five hours. In the background, and with no drama (rimshot, please…), the stage manager and assistant stage manager began rallying the troops.

The choreographer dialed in dance changes from afar, and the vocal director drove to the theatre, on her birthday, to make sure the cast had everything they needed. The cast came in hours early, and scrubbed down the entire theatre, replacing props that couldn’t be disinfected, and helping in every way possible. 

Let me stop for just a minute and remind you – this is community theatre. These cast members aren’t getting paid. They do this work for the love of the art. And in this case, for each other, and for their director. This is perhaps Discretionary Effort at its purest.

During the scrub-fest, the cast banded together to figure out which three would cover the second flu victim’s roles, and found costumes for everyone filling in. They taught complicated fight choreography to the subs, who absolutely killed it in their new parts, in addition to the roles they were already playing. 

And, in Ashley’s words, “Everyone filling in somehow managed to perform the entire show BY MEMORY! And those around them were helping to make sure any line mishaps were covered so that the audience had an amazing experience. Proud does not even begin to explain how I feel. This cast is phenomenal.” 

I know Ashley, and several of the members of this cast and crew. One of them is my son. And so I wasn’t surprised to learn of their response to the challenge of five actorless roles. These are hardworking, talented, and dedicated professionals…even though they’re volunteers. 

But I also know that people don’t usually rally around a challenge, go above and beyond, the extra mile, if you will, without exceptional leadership. So I asked the guy playing Stone, the show’s singing private eye (my son) if this display of Discretionary Effort had anything to do with a certain director, and her leadership skills. Channeling Bogart, in a trench coat and fedora, he assured me that it had everything to do with that. 

As a longtime observer of leadership habits that bring out the best in people, here’s my summation of what Ashley did that caused her team to part with copious amounts of their own Discretionary Effort, willingly and enthusiastically. She: 

  • Assembled a team of people based not solely on their talent and experience, but also on their willingness and ability to work together, 
  • Unified the team around a single, common mission – in this case, giving their customers (the audience) an amazing musical theatre experience, 
  • Set and maintained high standards, knowing that people love to be part of something that’s excellent, not just good enough, 
  • Demonstrated a willingness to get her hands dirty, jump into the fray, and take on a tough task herself, 
  • Treated her team in such a way, throughout the process, from casting to performance, that they were willing to walk through fire for her. In short, she cares about them, and they know it.

This story caused me to stop, take an honest look at my own leadership habits, and ask if those I lead would be willing to do the same for me. I hope you’ll ask yourself the same question.

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