Leadership Through Consent

Leadership Through Consent

6 Lunatics and 1 Big Dream

When I first shifted my focus from acting to directing, I learned the craft through a process of trial and error; I was very well trained as an actor and dancer, and had a considerable amount of experience under my belt, but my newly adopted role required quite different skills. Thankfully, I had a really safe environment in which to learn the ropes. I was running a small, supportive, rural community theatre program, which fortunately gave me some wiggle room for taking risks. We worked through some powerful, brave, somewhat eccentric, and sometimes painful theatre together. There were some rough patches, but also some incredible highs. It was during those rough patches that I came to realize there was one, glaring, single hurdle I needed to navigate in order to progress as a director, with one very straight forward error at its core; I started out directing in the same manner that I had as an actor been directed in the past.

So what was the problem with that?

The problem was that my past directors had all been male, and what worked for them was very obviously not working for me.

This baffled me until I explored the comprehensive body of research out there on gender stereotypes, and how they hinder the ability of women to achieve respect and trust as leaders. The catch 22 of the “backlash effect” in which the very qualities we expect in a leader are respected in men, but are penalized in women.

Even the ‘soft’ authoritarianism, the ‘gentle paternalism’, that I experienced from many male teachers and directors I had worked with in the past would all too often be met with resentment if I modeled that approach myself. It’s nothing new to women – if we’re assertive, we’re bitches, if we’re angry, we’re hysterical, if we demand, we’re bossy, if we try to navigate those hurdles creatively, we’re manipulative.

Women, as leaders, soon come to realize that we face a real conundrum: how to lead without appearing to lead? How to lead without assertiveness? How to face obstructionism without expressing anger, how to address disrespectful behavior, breaches of contract, dangerous lack of boundaries, etc. without showing the least sign of irritation, without appearing to ‘demand’, without appearing even so much as to ‘request’ amendments in behavior? All the qualities we have been taught to look for in a leader become the very qualities that undermine us as a leader.

But, additionally, and equally importantly, I didn’t feel comfortable, even with the ‘soft’ authoritarian approach I was modeling. I felt as though I were trying to dance with lead weights on my feet. I felt awkward, off kilter, and not true to myself.

The challenge over my years of directing has been this: how to stay true to my own world view, my own ethics, my own vision and dream, but still successfully occupy a director level role that will inspire trust in a world where any display of female ‘leadership’ will only serve to diminish that trust?

We live in a culture in which we have been taught to demurely conform to male government, to revere male anger, and in which we have been taught to resent female authority.

I am now the founder and artistic director of Theatre Lunatico, a small theatre company in a small basement theatre, on a small city street, clinging to the west coast of North America – not even a pinprick on the map of our one-world community. But the way we run as a company is vastly different from any other company I have been a part of. This new approach has evolved over time as I have addressed the wonderfully curious question of how to lead without appearing to lead.

Perhaps you could say we function through a consensus decision-making process (kind of, in an unstructured way). Or rather, maybe, we work collaboratively (again, kind of). Or, possibly, collectively? I’m not sure that the way I have developed this organization quite fits into any of the established models. In pondering the question of defining our company structure, the most accurate definition I could establish is that it is run through consent.

Our actions at an organizational level all require consent.

If you are at all perturbed, or even amused, by the use of ‘consent’ as a word to describe an organizational structure, please bear with me, and I will explain. But first, a little detour:

People often ask me why our company has the name ‘Lunatico’. What does it mean? Where does it come from? How do you pronounce it?

When I first came across the word, and the definition, I understood it to mean ‘eccentric’ and ‘quirky’, but also a little ‘melancholic’. It’s the full moon madness we all feel at times. Curious, wonder-full, mysterious, hopeful, heart-sad and deliriously happy. It evokes the emotional complexity of our existence, the moon that we all howl at, at some point in our lives, or at least, should. As such, it summed up my personal aesthetic in theatre, and maybe even my personal approach to making theatre happen. I have had the good fortune to train and work with performance artists from around the globe who embrace many genres, philosophies, and cultures. It’s an eclectic history, and what happens when I bring that multi-layered tapestry of experience to the rehearsal room is indeed quite eccentric. Definitely, at times, very quirky. But more than that, it reflects the very labyrinthine and sometimes contradictory way my mind meanders when I’m creating a show. It is not formulaic. It’s intuitive, fluid, and at any time can go in any number of directions. It’s scary for some folk to work through that approach with me, and for others, it is compelling.

I can tell you it’s a practical approach, but practicality without a plan. If that seems incompatible, I have discovered through experience that it truly is not.

There is a reason I’m telling you all this…

I discovered a way to fit my director shoes into my own personal world view, my own ethics, my own vision and dream. The six core members of Lunatico meet weekly and communicate almost daily. Our job titles on our website reflect the areas of operation most closely aligned with what we do, but in reality, for the most part, we all do it all. There is no decision within our company that is not discussed by the group and does not require group attention and response. This takes time and patience, and it can be, occasionally, a little frustrating. But it works. And when it works it is thrilling. We often take a moment out of our bottomless pit of action items to step back and say “Wow, this is amazing,” and ask, “How is it we all stick together through this, and do so respectfully, joyfully, heart-fully, and successfully?”

I have an idea how. If you can stick with my meandering approach a while longer, it goes like this:

We are all completely committed to, and consent to, a common goal.

It’s a process that is transparent, and a process that eliminates the need for authoritarian structures. It requires that we put our own personal insecurities, our own selfish needs, and our secret, more egotistical desires, to one side. We are all working for the common good of creating Theatre Lunatico’s kind of theatre. Nobody is above sweeping the floor in order to achieve this, and nobody is considered beneath being fully heard and having a say in order to achieve this. We are all equally invested, and equally respected.

We don’t spend much time referencing our rulebook, or poring over procedural documents. We haven’t even really much discussed expectations. What we have discussed at length, and continue to discuss at length, are our ethical boundaries, and the purpose for our being. These discussions are our north star. It’s the moon we all howl at in times of celebration, and the moon we all howl at in times of struggle.

In addition, we all have each other’s backs. This is vital. If one of us is sick, we all shift the playing field around a little and step in to keep all positions covered. If one of us is tired, feeling burned out, or if one of us has family needs that take priority (as they always should), we let them step back and all step further in. This, to repeat, is vital. We open up our hearts when we are struggling, we apologize when we screw up, and we hold each other to account. All necessary to truly have someone’s back.

Nobody acts in isolation. This, too, is vital. And this, perhaps, is the hardest part. There are many times I want to pound my toddler feet on the floor in frustration because I send out a ‘fantastic new idea!’ or a ‘project I worked really hard on!’ and get an inbox full of questions, concerns, ‘edits’, or heads up about some unforeseen obstacles I hadn’t thought of. “Why can’t I bloody well just get on with it my way?” my smaller mind complains, “Do they have any idea the hours I sweated over this?” my little heart demands. It is important that we are all able and willing to get beyond this. Because every question, concern, edit, and heads up is essential if we are to remain collectively committed to the common goal. We all give advice, and we are all open to receiving advice. Nobody is hierarchically above that. And being able to navigate that process with respect, care, and maturity is essential for our ethical boundaries.

There is a leadership role for me at Lunatico, and I feel very secure and respected within that role, but what I have learned is that the security and respect I feel as a ‘leader’ parallels equally the commitment I give to this principle of consent.

Things do get difficult at times; we have had our arguments, our tensions, our moments of intense frustration. These I have come to view as opportunities. Each time, we open our hearts, we apologize when necessary, we hold each other equally to account.

This is not a common work place experience. Neither is it a common work place structure. It goes against the grain. It defies everything we grew up being told about how to ‘get things done.’ There is no subservience, and neither is it dictatorial.

So, how does that relate to consent?

None of us are subservient, and none of us are dominant.

That is what consent is.

Consent is an equalizer. Nobody’s needs go unheard. There has to be a commitment to commonly held ethical boundaries. There has to be a common goal. There is no pressure for anyone to do anything they are not comfortable with, and our actions are all discussed ahead of time. Nobody acts in isolation. There is no room for any one person to use manipulation, and because we all hold each other to account, nobody gets to force their way. We all get to say yes, we all get to say no. We all get to step back when we feel the need to, and to resume when we are ready. We all hold space for each other, and we all put our more selfish organizational desires to one side in order to maintain our preciously appreciated harmony.

Consent not only protects us all individually within the company, it also protects the company as a whole.

And it provides Theatre Lunatico with the most productive ground possible in which to cultivate the greatest opportunity for success.

This is highly un-patriarchal. It is highly un-hierarchical. It is grounded in a commitment to equality, and highly conducive to collaborative, imaginative, delightful outcomes. It is not formulaic. It’s intuitive, fluid, and at any time can go in any number of directions.

It is compassionate. It is creative. It is cohesive.

It requires complete mutual commitment and complete mutual consent.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently not only as Theatre Lunatico grows as an organization, but also with the backdrop of enormous political conflict. We are being driven off the cliff by politics run on hierarchical, patriarchal, dictatorial processes. We have presidents and prime ministers forcing us all to endure their intransigent, rigid, self-motivated pursuit of individualist gain. Ethics have been thrown to the wind, common goals are unaddressed, not everyone is allowed a chair at the table, and those who are have forgotten how to listen in their tail-chasing squabble to win. We are focused on our differences, and not on our common goals (we have them/they are there.)

In terms of solutions, this suffocates creativity, closes doors we don’t even know are there to be opened, cordons off pathways, and clogs the flow of potentially vibrant rivers. When we adhere to principles of consent, we are required to act with selfless respect; we are required to focus on what brought us together in the first place, honor commonalities, acknowledge differences, move forward with courtesy. When we respect everyone in the room equally, whether we agree with them or not, whether we’re mad with them or not, whether we feel slighted by them or not, we are required to abandon fear, abandon stubbornness, and we have to let go of the need to dictate from above. It is not formulaic. It remains intuitive, fluid, and at any time can go in any number of directions…

I believe feminist philosophy is the far-too-long-ignored solution that has been raising its hand repeatedly in the back of the room. What we have been trying to tell you, as women, is that in order to eliminate sexual assault there is an urgent need to fully address the issue of consent. What I have discovered is that we can embrace the principle of consent across multiple social, political, and economic structures.

As we work to educate our communities about the concept of consent in sexual relationships, we can learn something about the essential need for consent across the full scope of our human experiences.

As we negotiate the concept of consent between two people, what can that teach us about consent within our wider social gatherings, our communal decision making processes?

I have come to believe that through a profound adoption of the principle of consent, we can work to eradicate many urgent, seemingly intractable situations of conflict and suffering.

We are on a precipice right now. What if we were to radically adjust our political, corporate, municipal, organizational, and community decision making processes by eradicating concepts of dominance and subservience? If we all had a seat equally at the table, what solutions would come to light? If consent was the driving force, what harmony could be forged?

I see directors hearing that and, head in hands, wailing ‘nothing would get done’; but my experience tells me that everything does, indeed, get done. In fact, we thrive.

Maybe dreaming of a different way of organizing our complex human world is a little lunatic. Maybe I’m howling at the moon. But it’s my job as a theatre director and teacher to demonstrate to actors how it is possible to hold, with integrity, multiple realities at one time, and how it is possible to hold, with integrity, contradictory realities at one time.

What I am doing as a leader is to extend that to the organizational structure of the company. It’s the empathy required for good theatre, it’s the empathy required in order to embrace the principle of consent, and it’s the empathy required to maintain a company structure based on that same principle of consent.

Theatre Lunatico’s core company is made up of 6 lunatics with 1 big dream. In order to achieve that, we are re-thinking the concept of leadership and productivity. In our small basement theatre, in our small city street, clinging to the west coast of North America – not even a pinprick on the map of our one-world community – we are quietly striving for something different. It’s not easy, but it’s rewarding, it’s productive, it’s inspiring, and I think we’ve all grown a little as people in the process.

– Tina Taylor, Artistic Director

Tina Taylor is available as a consultant to work with you on establishing a Leadership Through Consent model within your organization. If you are interested in finding out more about how LTC can benefit your work, Tina can be contacted through Theatre Lunatico, or at tina@tinataylor.org

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