Ever since I was 17, when I became the Entertainment Editor of the Sunday Express newspaper while still in college, I've been what is traditionally defined as a "leader."
After being fired at the age of 23, I led a small marketing and PR company, was recruited by Gilbert Rozon to co-found and lead the development of the Just For Laughs Festival; left that to co-lead the pioneering mobile media company Airborne Entertainment with Garner Bornstein; and after selling that company, was asked back to Just For Laughs to lead its English and French Festivals and Television divisions. And during my tenure at Airborne, I spent my summer vacation stage directing the large-scale Just For Laughs Gala Shows, leading performers the likes of John Cleese, Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon and dozens of others who had no business actually listening to and taking direction from someone like me.
Now I'm not saying that I'm a great leader, or even a good one, but that's what I've done for the past 36 years of my career.
What I've NOT done though, is ever been a follower.
Until a few weeks ago, when I "got out of my comfort zone" and agreed to be part of an ensemble cast in a musical fundraiser for Montreal's Segal Centre for the Arts, which takes place tonight and Wednesday.
The experience has been enlightening, to say the least. Instead of barking out orders and making decisions, I'm now listening and reacting to the orders and decisions of others. And despite having a solo number in the show (that's me in my "Hair" outfit, with two of the show's kids below) it--and the two other full-cast numbers I'm involved in--falls under the vision of director/choreographer Lisa Rubin and musical director Nick Burgess (as well as choreographer Heather Huff and stage managers Mirna Morelli and Dana Kobernick). They're the puppet-masters who pull my strings.
Much has been written on leadership (there are over 75,000 books on the subject on Amazon.com), but what I've learned over the past few weeks is the value of being a good follower.
Being a good follower means buying into a leader's vision. If you can't do that, find some other place to work (or play, I suppose).
Being a good follower doesn't mean being a spineless yes-man, a sheep or a lackey; I challenge Nick and Lisa's decisions all the time. But it does mean that in the end, I respect the ultimate decision they make.
Being a good follower also--paradoxically--shows a sense of leadership, as not everyone follows at the same speed, or with the same intensity. Those who don't keep up or screw around end up making things tough--and frankly, worse--for everyone else. Following well makes the ultimate goal easier and faster to reach. Success doesn't just depend on respecting leaders; it depends on respecting, and helping, each other.
It ain't been easy. I'm much more at ease doing things on my own than as part of a group. But being, so to speak, "on the other side" has been a learning experience of epic proportions, particularly in the relationship between leaders and followers.
So as I bellow and shake my ass through two shows (two SOLD OUT shows, I may add) this week, I leave the stage with the humility of a committed follower...
...and with the knowledge that without great followers, leaders cease to exist.