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For the Record
Management Commission:
Leadership: A Case Study

Carolyn Satter
Management Commissioner

"If you expect the best from your personnel, more than likely you will get it." Secrets of Effective Leadership.

When the call came in, I was on vacation in Baltimore, about to catch a plane to Milwaukee for the annual Irish music festival. It was just before 7 a.m. Eastern time on Thursday, August 18, 2005. A security guard was calling me to report that smoke was rising from the top of the Civic Theatre, in San Diego, California. My first response was to get on a plane and fly back to San Diego that minute. However, after speaking with the guard and learning that she had already called the fire department, my expedited trip home seemed unnecessary.

I tasked her to call my assistant, central plant, and the theatre's CEO to update them on the situation. At that time, the touring company for the new musical Little Women was in the process of loading in and the personal piano of André Watts was in the theater for a recital the following day.

Four hours later I received the first update: some speculated that a lighting instrument had ignited an adjacent velour border and, as a result, all of the theatre's soft goods that were hanging in storage had been destroyed. Additionally, there was four inches of water both on stage and in the basement.

It would be another six days before I returned to San Diego. During that time I found myself living vicariously through the production team and wondering what they were doing to solve this crisis. I remember teaching a class on production management a few years back and one of the students asked the difference between management and leadership. That difference would become more apparent in the days which followed.

On Saturday, August 20, I called the head carpenter to see how things were progressing. He reported that the fire crews responded quickly, and a sprinkler system put out any flames before they arrived. There was water damage to the backstage and basement, and 12,500 gallons had been pumped from the orchestra pit alone. Luckily, the seating area and house were not affected. I then spoke with my assistant to get information from the facility and management angle. He confirmed that he had everything under control thanks, in part, to his ongoing relationships with the building tenants, touring company, and emergency services.

Upon returning to San Diego, I met with my staff and continued to plan relief efforts. Dehumidifiers would be running for the next week. The André Watts piano recital had been moved to another venue, and the Little Women company had decided to cancel the first three performances and pick up the run mid-week, due to the damage to some scenery and props. I was very impressed and proud of the quick problem solving and crisis management skills my staff demonstrated.

A sign of effective leadership is this: the backstage staff worked as a team and was able to take care of the crisis without me being there. They did this because of an atmosphere that has been created to allow them to step up and take control when needed. Over the years, they have been empowered to act on behalf of what's best for the theatre and they take that responsibility seriously. This process takes time. It takes an attitude from a manager who believes that he/she is not the critical core to every situation. It is the strong belief that a facility can run just as well with or without the manager on site, knowing all along that the goals and attitudes are shared within the team.

As I write this article, Little Women is about to open, rigging hardware and goods have been ordered, numerous reports have been filed, the ticket office has successfully re-seated thousands of patrons, and the show goes on.

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Carolyn Satter