Young, Scrappy, and Hungry
Tommy Kail Comes to Stern
Kristi Berry, MBA Class of 2016
With deepest apologies to the professors of our Monday morning classes, we had somewhere else to be that day. You might say, we had to be in the room where it happens.
The day in question was March 28th, and the room an unassuming KMC classroom, where Dolly Chugh’s Managerial Skills class – and more than a few hangers-on – packed in to listen to Hamilton director Tommy Kail speak about leadership. Some came to the session for advice from a seasoned leader, while others came to hear more about that musical your friends won’t stop talking about. The latter group made themselves known before the session even started, singing along to the soundtrack as it played over the speakers. I can confidently say I have never seen such unbridled enthusiasm precede a fireside chat.
But the conversation went far beyond fan-service to offer actionable leadership advice as well as general wisdom on working hard and staying sane. Kail’s candid nature immediately struck a chord as he recounted starting a theater company in his 20s, “I don’t want to say it’s because no one would hire me, but no one would hire me.” MBAs have a tendency to gloss over failures, casually airbrushing them out of our 30-second stories, and this bluntness signaled we were in for a fresh perspective.
As Kail dug into describing his leadership style as a director, there were lovely intersections of business and art. Like any good manager, he extolled the virtues of preparation, communication, and hard work. There was a through-line of staunch selflessness and lack of ego in many of his answers, whether describing his job as “making that room a place where [everyone] can excel” or insisting that “if a show opens and it can’t run without me, I’ve failed.” To hear Kail tell it, his work is a success when it no longer needs him. As a Sternie, I have likewise always felt a strong shared belief that as one of us succeeds, we all succeed. It is a differentiator in a cutthroat world, and a characteristic that necessarily goes hand in hand with courage and confidence.
Bringing his artistic sensibility to the matter, Kail went on to explain his leadership style with a metaphor: At the beginning of a play or musical, he and his cast and crew are on a beach. It is his job to help them into the water, calm their nerves, allow them to swim out. Yet he himself will always remain on the shore. Eventually, the group can more or less swim on their own, with Kail guiding them to correct course if they encounter an undercurrent or have drifted too far out. As the leader in this scenario, it sounds difficult – and dare I say lonely? – to remain on shore, but the metaphor saliently points out the need to do so.
The beach metaphor is a somewhat sobering one as I think about graduating and going on to a new job and all the responsibilities it entails. Leaving behind the hallowed halls of our beloved KMC may be daunting, but Kail delivered some wise advice to carry forward: Live your life. It may sound artsy fartsy to us business-minded MBAs, but that is precisely why we need it. Even if (when?) you wind up doing something less creative than directing a Broadway musical, there is value in getting out of the office, having experiences, interacting with people and with the world.
I am sure those enrolled in Managerial Skills gained all this and more on the merits of creativity in leadership. And as stated, I did certainly glean some useful advice for the future (plus obvious Hamilton fangirl street cred.) Mostly, though, I came away with a refreshed perspective on work, balance, passion, and how the three coexist.