When people ask me about the beginnings of my leadership theories, they’re usually surprised that it started with a high school musical.
In 1957, I was a part of an extraordinary adventure. Over 200 kids at New Trier High School, Winnetka, IL, wrote and produced a musical comedy, performing it for several nights running. The annual show was known as Lagniappe, a Cajun word meaning a little bit extra or something more. It was developed from scratch each year.
For me, it was the something more that no MBA program could have provided. As co-director of Lagniappe, I experienced the innovative process from brainstorming about what type of show to do (ce.g. musical review or comedy sketches) to selecting and leading a group of amazingly talented young lyrists, composers, singers, actors, choreographers, dancers, salespeople, set builders, lighting experts, costumers, choral directors, orchestra members, props people and numerous other essential crew members
My co-director and I selected those who originated the music and lyrics based on challenges we created and sample solutions we received. Given the talent we realized was available, we decided to take on the challenge of having all original songs. Auditions were tense with over 400 students trying out or applying for roles in cast and crews. We recruited some whose efforts we’d seen in other school projects such as the newspaper, sports, government, debate and the arts.
Ann-Margaret may have had her start in musicals with us. (She had a last name then, and as a sophomore, was considered a risky choice. We put her in the chorus.)
Over months of working together, our efforts became collaborative, self-determined, persistent, persuasive, and passionate about seemingly impossible goals. Because we were dependent upon one another, we began looking after one-another with an inordinate amount of compassion (which dissipated after the show, but proved the possibility).
During that time, I began writing short quips about the natural abilities or “Creative bent” as I called it, of those involved. I had an ever-present clip board with tasks I’d check-off on the front of pages, and notes-to-self about how to deal with the creative needs of individuals/groups on the back. (Would that I never did throw anything away, as some believe.)
I recall making a list of the people who I could count on to be precise in everything they did. They argued about specifics that improved the final production – and I rarely sat through the entire discussion. Sure enough, many became scientists or lawyers. In current emails, these are the people who have detailed memories about those debates. For instance Dick Wirtz, our musical director, is still weighing the pros and cons of the show’s title:
We went around and around on the title. Some of us thought “On the Rocks” was good because (1) Laurentz was approached by Duke Boniface through the “towering Alps” (lyric) so it must be in the mountains somewhere and (2) Laurentz was broke. Others thought that sounded too much like the title of a previous show (On the House?) and the title ought to be “In the Year 1173.” I argued against that because I thought the audience would mistakenly believe that the show was set in the year 1173. My side won. In retrospect, I think we should have lost.
Another list was of the quick-take ad libbers. They were fun to let loose on ideas, but a challenge to keep to the final script. I predicted they’d do their own thing at some point and many of them did become entrepreneurs, PR people, TV personalities.
Many Lagniappe ’57 participants are now communicating about the difference the show made in their lives. It didn’t make any of us different from who we were, it gave us confidence to BE who we are. We were able to celebrate our differing contributions and share a sense of purposefulness that brought out our natural strengths – our MOs.
In an email this week from a cast member Laura Coleman Keith:
I know a lot of the wellness I feel about being me can be attributed to my participation in Lagniappe, where being a part of the team rounded me out. It taught me about talent and genius, which I was able to see close up. A person whom I wouldn’t have suspected of having gifted skills, nor someone I would probably never have known, I got to be around and appreciate in awe… I loved being there with you.
Free from the confinement of the traditional classroom requirements, we literally did our own thing – and made it work.
Lagniappe was more than just a little bit extra. It was an extra-curricular activity, done without the hovering of faculty members or parents that gave a group of high school kids the self-confidence to act on our own instincts or natural abilities — our innate conative strengths..
Lessons learned during my leadership role in this student-produced project provided a foundation for my life’s work.
How often are today’s students given the freedom necessary for this level of thought and self-discovery?
UPDATE: Several Lagniappe ’57 alums are putting together a CD and libretto from the show. Next you may see us take it to Broadway!