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Tour Theory: hierarchical relationships

Taking a break today to talk about some tour theory, if you will. This will be one of those posts that isn’t really gear or project-related. What I want to instead focus on today is leadership styles on touring.

If one takes away nothing else further from this screed, take ye this, because its the core of my philosophy on tour: people, in general, hate being given direct orders. What I mean by a direct order is any imperative that comes in the form “X, go do Y.”

Language needs to do two things: it needs to convey some sort of content, such as an imperative. “Stagehand, run this cable.” But further, it has to negotiate a relationship type. It therefore needs to work on two levels. We use the literal form to signal the safest relationship to the listener, while counting on our listener to read between our lines to entertain a proposition that might be incompatible with that relationship.

For instance, take a polite request in the form “If you could run this cable across the stage, that would be awesome.” When you think about it, this doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. First of all, it’s a massive overstatement, and further, it’s not clear why we should be pondering counterfactual worlds during load-in. But it works, obviously: the listener assumes that the speaker hasn’t lost his mind, realizes that the speaker says that something is good, therefore it is requested, and the intended content, the imperative, gets through without the presumption of dominance that would ordinarily accompany an imperative – which would obviously carry along with it an expectation that the listener can be commanded.

But why avoid the imperative? After all, tour personal are generally ranked hierarchically, and this tends to work very well. Tours are a structured environment: one person is generally responsible for an aspect of the show, and it falls on her shoulders to ensure that their aspect of the tour works perfectly. There are no days off except in the most extreme circumstances, and generally, a touring crew chief / director is ultimately responsible for anything that goes wrong with their equipment, whether it was (directly) their fault that something screwed up or not. There is therefore a tremendous responsibly put on the personnel at the top to make sure their part of the show is in perfect order each and every night, and subordinate personnel are part of making that a reality every night. It can be – and generally is – argued that their job is to take orders and follow them. I generally do not have a problem with this “theory of command”, if you will, but it’s certainly the worst possible mode of transferring information to default to.

So, what’s the deal with “If you could run this cable across the stage, that would be awesome.”? Here’s the thing: while it may be permissible to simply command a hand or your L2 or whomever to simply carry out your wishes, anyone who thinks that simply issuing dictates is the best way to treat not even your tour staff, but also local crew, is doing themselves and their fellow tour members a huge disservice.

One of the guys who served as an entry point to the industry for me once told me his philosophy when on the job was “Please and thank you are assumed.” It should come as no surprise that this person is not one I generally regard as one of the easiest people to get along with. Because the fact is that please and thank you are not assumed, they are the lubrication of the social engine.

We have, on the crew of the tour that I currently work for, an older gentleman who serves as our stage manager. He has been around for many, many years, and while it’s true that many times I run into the cliche of “older = more angry”, this man absolutely defies that stereotype. He is one of the kindest people I know, and he puts everyone around him at ease. But beyond that, his personality and gentle countenance has the effect of making things get done very smoothly. He’s one of those guys who makes you want to bend over backwards to help him out. He has absolutely mastered the art of stage-manager-ing in that we all work just that little extra bit harder because we don’t want to let him down. Does the gentle approach work all the time? Certainly not. Neither it is not necessary speak in purple prose to those around you, to obsequiously beg hands and subordinate co-workers to do their jobs, but the mark of a good leader is one who knows that leadership is the art of making people want to help you.

When one asks an L2 or a hand to do something, ask. Do not order, unless it’s obviously in jest. I try do this because my relationship with my tour co-workers works better without language that implies a relationship of subordination. There are times when a direct order is necessary, but only in situations where the recipient is not “getting it”. And after nearly every time I “pull rank”, I think of a better way the situation could have been handled. This is not weakness, it is treating others with respect and kindness, and it leads to better outcomes than simply throwing one’s weight around.

This entry was not inspired by anything in particular, it’s just an idea that’s been rattling around for a few years, and this seemed like the time to write my thoughts down.

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