Leadership as performance

In 2014, drama school Toi Whakaari made a decision to expand beyond drama and what happens backstage by launching Ruku Ao, a professional development programme for leadership training. At first glance, these two disciplines do not seem connected. But if you look a bit below the surface, you’ll find that there are more similarities than differences, and Toi Whakaari was a natural fit for leadership development. 

Here’s why: Both leaders and artists have to do these three things:

● Communicate with an audience

● Reveal your vulnerability

● Be comfortable with shades of grey

● Bring groups together around a common purpose

Ruku Ao helps leaders become better at these things by focusing on collaborating, co-designing and other such skills that artists practice every day at Toi Whakaari. And the way the school is learning to employ Mare technologies around meeting and seeing. The outcome is leaders who can be vulnerable and connect with others at a real level. 

This isn’t just about connecting with subordinates. More and more often, leaders are expected to work in teams. The best leaders are able to connect and communicate with one another - that’s how you make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. 


How it works

Ruku Ao goes beyond theory, and gets participants to practice and reflect on what they learn. For example, participants spend some of their time watching Toi at work, sometime on Marae practicing encounter/meeting and sometime applying their leadership skills in large and small groups back in their business setting.

It’s also a year-long, part-time course. This means that there’s more time for participants to really form habits by repeating behaviors’. Again, this takes things from the theoretical to the practical.

Who gets involved?

Any leader can benefit from Ruku Ao. Public sector leaders often participate - they often get a lot of value out of the influencing skills they learn, because so much of public sector management is like herding cats. High Performance Sport is another major participant, using Ruku ao to teach sports leaders about different types of leadership, beyond just competitive leadership. 

This is a natural fit because of sport’s natural connection to art - both sport and performance art are live, and highly dependent on teams. A rugby game is as much a performance as a film set - it just has different rules and stakes. 

The results

The feedback has been that Ruku ao builds real habits, rather than just buzzwords. Graduates of Ruku Ao know how to communicate exactly what they have done, rather than speaking in terms of vague possibilities. 

What’s more, they know how to collaborate in a more effective way, because they’ve learned not to be afraid of disharmony.


What’s next?

This is just the beginning. Performance is at the heart of all kinds of disciplines, and Toi Whakaari is well-placed to apply it in much the same way they have done with Ruku ao. So keep an eye out - Toi could well be getting involved in your sector sooner rather than later.

BrandsBrian Steele