When I was a sophomore at Emerson College, one of my courses had me direct a short video production. The College, with its strong, “learn by doing” approach, had two well-appointed studios with high-end cameras freshly donated from the local television station. The professor in this class was an exceptionally chic PBS producer who always clutched a coffee filled Styrofoam cup in her hand.
I had already completed many video projects in high school and during my freshman year at Emerson, so I was feeling confident in my abilities. The script and storyboard I had submitted the prior week received glowing feedback, so when it was my day to direct, I was assured I had everything under control.
I remember feeling jazzed as I ran back and forth between the control room and the studio, where I set up specific shots and helped move pieces of the set. I rolled a ladder into position under a spotlight and began to scramble up it when my sophisticated instructor called out to me.
“Karl, what are you doing?” She asked.
“Adjusting the light,” I replied.
“Don’t you have a lighting director?” She quizzed.
“Yes,” I said.
“Then tell them what to do,” she said.
“But –,” I started to explain.
She looked up at me and motioned with her hand, “Look around – see all these people just standing? That’s your crew.”
“But, I was just trying to help,” I mumbled.
“Their job is to help you – your job is to direct them. If they aren’t helping you, they know they will fail this assignment. In real life, if they didn’t help you, they would be fired and not get paid,” she said.
I started to protest about how I was brought up to lend a hand, but she would have none of it. In surprising less than polite PBS language, she told me, “Now get your (butt) off that (freaking) ladder and into the control room. Do not come out on the studio floor again until the shoot is over and you congratulate or reprimand your crew. Right now you have a (freaking) show to do, so use your headset, use your floor manager and use your assistant director. You are the director – (freaking) direct!”
It shook me up a little bit, but soon the control room and studio were humming with collaborative activity, and it ended up being a great show, and terrific experience.
At first blush, this may run counter to how many think teams work, challenging a culture of empowerment or the servant-leadership lifestyle. It does not. In fact, it fits those contexts perfectly well. It took me years to not so much learn but confirm that early leadership lesson.
There are different styles of directors that may emphasize one nuanced leadership style over another, but the basic formula is the same.
- Set and then communicate the vision, repeatedly.
- Wisely assign roles and delegate tasks to those who can best fulfill the vision.
- Then get out of their way so they can do their job in a way that compliments your job and supports the vision.
- Give them feedback, without doing the work for them.
- At the end of the production, learn from any mistakes and celebrate success.
Stop complicating things. Directors Direct. Leaders Lead.