posted 1 Oct 2007 in Volume 11 Issue 2
The knowledge - Richard Olivier
Waiting for Richard Olivier to arrive for our interview, my eyes are drawn to the bookshelves that cover the length of the meeting room in his Fulham, west
He defines an authentic leader as an individual who is able to look after the ‘triple bottom-line’ of people, planet and profit. He adds that they must be ‘whole human beings’, in touch with their company’s strategy and communication, as well as people’s physical needs, emotions and relationships. “We don’t want leaders who wear masks all the time,” he says. “Inauthentic leaders put on a false face, make it up as they go along or pretend to be someone else while they’re at work.”
His concerns about the business world are manifold. He wants to open leaders’ eyes to the human side of work, which is often suppressed by its number-driven mentality, and familiarise them with the issues of sustainability at both macro and micro levels. But instead of a chalk-and-talk approach to leadership development, Olivier works with mythodrama, which draws his audiences into the themes, stories and life-changing incidents found within Shakespeare’s plays. By living the stories, people experience for themselves what it takes to be an authentic leader.
The evolution of this style of learning has closely followed Olivier’s own journey. With Dame Joan Plowright and Sir Laurence Olivier – the Laurence Olivier – as parents, he was almost destined to pursue a life in the theatre. His directing career includes a hugely successful production of Henry V that not only opened London’s Globe Theatre, but also kickstarted much of his work with leadership.
After 15 years, however, he realised it was the educational aspect of his performances that interested him more than being part of the entertainment sector. “My prime jobs were to help companies interpret the story in the best way and for them to achieve peak performance in their delivery,” he says. “I wanted the audience to get viscerally involved, but I found that in most of my professional theatre work there was limited opportunity to do that.”
It was while exploring his personal development after his father’s death in 1989 that he became more involved in using his theatre skills to help people release their potential. “I was learning from the mythopoetic field, which uses poetry and mythology, but wanted to add something from my culture.” Olivier says that even though he had shied away from Shakespeare for a long time, he could easily see the value of the myths in the plays. Working with Mark Rylance, who had just become the first artistic director at the Globe, they started a lab to examine whether mythodrama worked with Shakespeare, which it did very well.
Deciding where to focus mythodrama was easy: “I wanted to work with the people who make decisions that affect others, the environment and the planet.” He says it took about five years to get mythodrama to a form that felt right. “We added organisational-development thinking and business-management models to this creative, artistic enterprise to give it the right balance for managers to take seriously.” As most of Shakespeare’s leading characters are overt leaders – kings, queens or princes who are managing people, resources, struggles and tensions in pursuit of a goal – the translation to business was easy. “If you have Henry V saying, ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’, everyone gets that he is inspiring unmotivated troops.”
Olivier’s introduction to mythodrama in the early 1990s coincided with a time of mass redundancy in the private sector. He met a lot of people who felt abused by the organisations they had given their lives and trust to. “There was a lot of walking wounded and the message that came through was that organisations were unhealthy places and leaders were unhealthy people. I wanted to find out why these organisations weren’t treating people with respect or humanity.”
With confirmation that mythodrama had a place in business he founded Olivier Mythodrama with two friends in the late 1990s to help leaders understand their role in making a company truly sustainable. “It’s not just about making people feel good about turning up to work, although research shows that if you do staff retention increases. We want to help people see the big picture. As a global village we are in desperate need of truly inspired ethical leaders to take us through the next 50 years. We need people in senior positions to be willing to tell shareholders why certain things can no longer happen.”
Olivier wants leaders to see beyond shareholders’ expectations to recognise that they have a responsibility to the environment. Quoting a phrase he recently heard at a conference he says, “Some people in business and the government need to understand that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of our ecology. People give economic excuses for not making ecological moves, but if we don’t look after the ecology first there will be no economy.”
Whether it’s through a one-day workshop or a year’s coaching, Olivier facilitates a process that uses stories to help senior leaders in public and private organisations work out what they need to rediscover about their talents, potential, humanity or people that will make a fundamental difference to the way they lead. “There are two sides to it,” he says. “First, we find out how who you are and what you care about connects to the organisation’s purpose, and then build you up with theatre tools and techniques that enable you to stand and deliver that message passionately and authentically five days in a row.”
A Shakespeare play should get leaders thinking about what they’re interested in. For example, in The Tempest they could focus on how Prospero has to engage his people, how he has to give up some control to let in a whole new system or how he confronts the men of sin who are blocking the process. “Storytelling is the hook that gets people interested,” says Olivier. “It moves from one inevitable incident, insight or challenge to the next, and forms a continuous learning cycle. Because we’re coded to remember stories, pictures and metaphors more clearly and for longer than facts and figures.”
Having helped local authorities gain their ‘Investors in People Award’, brought a social services department out of ‘special measures’ and created mission statements that are not number driven and resonate with staff, Olivier is now well qualified to comment on what makes a successful leader. “They’re ordinary human beings with extraordinary talent,” he says. “If they’re extraordinary the danger is that nobody can replicate what they do and the inspiration dies with the individual. They also don’t have to fit the old-style heroic model, they can be quieter but have a deep sense of who they are, what they’re doing and why they’re not solely driven by external factors.”
To ensure his efforts to change business aren’t hampered by middle-aged managers too set in their ways to consider alternative ideas, Olivier is also working with young leaders. “I’m trying to work with 18 to 25 year-olds who are on the cusp of moving into the work environment for the first time. They’re going to be in powerful positions in the next ten years and we’re giving them a nudge to think about what a truly sustainable, as opposed to purely lucrative, career would look like. We want them to grow up with a broad perspective from the beginning of their careers.” Indeed, his teenage son could be one of these enlightened leaders as he starts university to study politics and economics with a particular focus on sustainable development.
On a micro level, sustainable could simply involve recycling, using lower energy light bulbs and double-sided printers. At a macro level, Olivier Mythodrama is using Shakespeare’s As You Like It to help leaders recognise they have to make significant changes. “It could be that they have to come out of their corporate headquarters and drop all pretence and hierarchy to become part of the community and really listen to people,” he says. “You then figure out what you care about, what relationships need to be forged and take it back to the court. The danger is that people sit on top of a mountain for a couple of weeks, end up saying sod that for a game of arrows and don’t return to the workplace. We’re not going to help save the planet if everybody who wakes up to a deeper sense of connection leaves. They need to make a difference where they work.”
Being able to marry the parts of your career you have most enjoyed with the creation of a successful business is an achievement most people strive for. It’s clear that throughout this process Olivier has always walked his talk. By taking what he has learnt from his own journey into leadership he continues to improve his work with businesses. And just as he is taking measures to minimise Olivier Mythodrama’s impact on the environment, we should hope that he also succeeds in reminding the world’s decision makers that their responsibilities extend beyond their profits and shareholders. Perhaps then true long-term sustainability will cease to sound like a fable and will become a reality for us all.
Name: Richard Olivier
Place of birth:
Bar tender, theatre director, personal development workshop leader, author, leadership development consultant, conference speaker.
Energy, enthusiasm, passion, getting and communicating ideas, reciting poetry.
My Gardening, answering ‘fact files’.
Can’t live without:
My family (and my diary).
What I do to relax:
Good food, good wine, good films, dodgy tennis, thought-filled meditation and tense yoga.
‘River Flow – New and Selected poems’ by David Whyte.
Richard Olivier is the founder of Olivier Mythodrama. He can be contacted via email@example.com