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The play wot we wrote?
Controversial US commentator and author Gore Vidal once wrote: ‘American writers want not to be good, but great; and so are neither.’ The quote ignores the fact that much of the best writing of the twentieth century was American, not English, but it does aptly describe what happened when the Crane brothers, from the hit US situation comedy Frasier, decided to pool their considerable talents to write a novel.
In one of the strongest episodes of the series, the discerning radio shrink and his equally discriminating brother – so knowledgeable about the arts, so refined in their judgement of the fine things of life and so waspish in their comments about people who fall short of their lofty standards – agree on nothing. After days of toil and trouble, including a period in which they shut themselves in a hotel room and almost come to blows, they fail even to compose the first sentence.
The episode, like so many in the series, mocks the inability of staggeringly cerebral Frasier and Niles to do anything remotely practical. It also highlights a general truth about writing – that it is an essentially individual (and lonely) activity. Few successful novels are the result of collaboration. Even newspaper articles are usually the work of a single scribe rather than a team. When more than one journalist is by-lined on a report, it is usually because they are working in different cities or on different aspects of a single story, and their separate contributions are connected by words such as ‘meanwhile’, ‘moreover’ or ‘however’.
Franklin (Organisations & People, February 2008) has a more sanguine view of collaborative writing, however, suggesting that it can help the organizational-change process by enabling consensus to develop. Franklin perceives that this consensus can emerge from the very processes of drafting, writing and publishing formal documents. To illustrate the point, the author presents the process of compiling a new vision statement as a play entitled Shaping the Future.
Posner (Journal of Management Inquiry, March 2008) presents a more conventional view of collaboration in a theatrical setting – where the theatre director brings together a group of talented individuals to work as a team in giving life and meaning to the words on the page. Posner shadowed a director and 12 actors over the four weeks it took them to bring George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara to the stage at the San Jose Repertory Theater, California.
The aim of the exercise was not to evaluate the director as such, but to learn about leadership through watching a leader in a context that was unfamiliar to the author. And the conclusions? That successful leaders first establish a vision, which they then communicate in such a way that followers come to see it as their own. This process transforms followers into leaders by giving them their voice. Leaders then foster experimentation among followers, empower them though coaching and help them to learn from experience. This creates mutual respect and brings out the best in followers by underlining that they are appreciated for who they are and what they do.
Posner concludes that what can be learned from great theatre directors is similar to what has been observed of great leaders in other fields. But one should shy away from being too prescriptive about what constitutes the successful leader. As Shaw himself wrote: ‘The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.’