Leadership Wisdom From A Broadway Star

On December 20th, producers of Almost Famous announced the closure of the Cameron Crowe-penned Broadway musical based on his 2000 movie of the same name. Shortly thereafter, actor Anika Larsen – who played the role of Elaine Miller, inspired by Crowe’s own mother and portrayed by Frances McDormand in the film – penned a heartfelt, public letter to her colleagues and collaborators about the grief of abruptly ending a creative endeavor five years in the making. Now, Larsen’s powerful and deeply personal words are reverberating, not only in the tight-knit Broadway community, but across industries and contexts where grief and loss are on many leaders’ minds.

Whether through layoffs, mergers and acquisitions, early ends to inspired projects in service of cost management, organizational consolidation and restructuring, the departure of founders, or a re-envisioning of the integration of work and non-work life following the early years of the COVID pandemic, business leaders navigating macroeconomic uncertainty remain at the epicenter of more dramatic change than many have experienced in their careers – or even their lifetimes. Those shifts have left people at all stages of career and all levels of organizational life experiencing loss and grief in ways that are often painful to manage and that regularly go unacknowledged or undiscussed in the workplace. And through it all, leaders need a plan to support team members who are coping with the sudden disappearance of colleagues, the termination of work to which they have devoted years of their lives, the emotional struggle between the productivity and independence of working from home and the isolation of being apart from co-workers, the feeling of a loss of control over their destinies, and more.

This broader operating context has led to Larsen’s letter resonating beyond the community of artists, craftspeople, tradespeople, and other colleagues to whom she was speaking directly. “I guess [that reaction] wasn’t that surprising,” she said in a January 2023 interview. “One example of loss, even specific to you, is understandable to other people. Loss is loss and grief is grief. As artists, we are asked so often about our work – we are interviewed about what it feels like to be creating. How are you feeling about opening night? But no one asks you what it feels like to close a show, what it feels like when something ends. No one talks about it.”

Tony-nominated for originating the role of Cynthia Weil in the Carole King bio-musical Beautiful, Larsen has been deeply engaged in plenty of high-profile projects in the past, but has never previously felt compelled to write publicly about an ending. This time was different because “not only was the work extraordinary, but it felt unfair that we were being forced to close because of the pandemic and other factors totally out of our control.” That loss of control led to unprocessed collective grief – and prompted Larsen’s desire to pick up a pen.

Lovingly charting the path of creation over nearly five years on the way to Broadway, Larsen’s letter conveys not only the work of artistic collaboration, but also the emotion involved in coming together in service of a shared vision – specific to her experience, but generalizable to any organization. “You became a team,” she writes. “And you chose people who dared . . . to come show you what you made. Those [people] gave their all to your creation – hoping, hoping, hoping that this risky endeavor might be one of the few risky endeavors to succeed.”

Asked to share her advice to others experiencing or leading through dramatic organizational change, Larsen politely demurs. “The idea that I would presume to teach makes me uncomfortable,” she says. “Good storytelling is never pedantic. Sure, playwrights have a point of view, but if you are lecturing or teaching, it’s bad theater. I don’t want to tell people that they should feel sad about loss. I wanted to share our very specific example about how loss occurs and can be experienced, rather than telling people how they should feel or reckon with grief.”

Her authentic humility notwithstanding, both Larsen’s original letter and her reflections on writing it hold abundant good counsel for any leader helping a team or an organization to navigate dramatic change.

Draw on the wisdom of experience. “I know,” she says, “in a way that my younger colleagues don’t yet know, what it’s like to look back on a career and have all of your work be milestones on the timeline of your career. It’s huge and all-encompassing when you’re in it. With time, though, they become these self-contained memories. You know what they led to for you, how they then served you, because all of them do — even where there was pain involved. Everything served you, everything led to the next thing.”

Find ways to bring people together, to tell the story, and to acknowledge and process the grief of organizational change and loss together. “To be alone with your grief is so much harder than to process it with others. That’s why we do funerals and memorial services. They’re not for the dead person. We need to be together feeling these feelings. That helps us to reckon with the pain of it all – and to move forward. It’s always the desire to find our commonalities that is the reason for storytelling, and that’s core to dealing with grief.”

Don’t take the change – or its result – personally. You may be disappointed with the outcome, but it’s never only about you. “I’ve auditioned for lots of projects over the course of my career, and I’ve booked less than 1% of them. If you can’t handle that, you leave [acting] early,” Larsen says. “Decisions are based on what they specifically need with certain people, who else is in the room, how compromise happens – it’s not personal. You learn not to take it personally. The outcome is not a reflection on how good you are.” The benefits of that systemic thinking may be more obvious in the performing arts, but the framework is equally relevant in all organizational life.

Remember that none of us really know what will happen tomorrow. “I thought I knew what this year was going to look like,” Larsen explains. “I’m a planner. I don’t have a risk gene. Much harder for me than the rejection of being an actor is the unpredictability of it. I could get a call from my agent at any time that would change even what my tomorrow looks like. Ultimately, that’s always true for everyone—it’s life. But it’s even more pronounced in the line of work that I’m in, and it’s wicked hard.”

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/ericpliner/2023/02/01/surviving-dramatic-organizational-change-leadership-wisdom-from-a-broadway-star/