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Lessons from a Musical Genius

By Jeffrey Shields posted 12-07-2021 08:45 AM

  

CEO Notebook |

Three takeaways from Stephen Sondheim’s storied career can help independent schools face another challenging year — with verve.

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Jeffrey Shields, FASAE, CAE
NBOA President and CEO

Musical theatre has been part of my life since I was 12 years old. Bored at the start of one summer, I was marched by my wise mother into an audition at our local community theatre. I spent the summer playing the White Rabbit in a children’s production of Alice in Wonderland, and thus began my love affair with musical theatre.

Seeing my enthusiasm, my mother again astutely understood that I was bitten by the theatre bug and took me to my first professional theatre performance that fall. It was the musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” performed at the Forest Theatre in Philadelphia. Angela Lansbury starred and won a Tony for her role, alongside George Hearn, another Broadway veteran. This was back when successful Broadway performers took their shows “on the road.” The production was rather avant garde for an early adolescent, but it cemented my love for the stage. 

As you likely well know, the music and lyrics of “Sweeney Todd” were written by Stephen Sondheim, who died last week at the age of 91. He left an unmatched legacy that demonstrated that musical theatre could innovate and tell bold and unique stories.

The most valuable lesson I took away is that everyone has some talent to offer, but it must be first tapped and then directed, so that the individual talent of each performer, member of the orchestra, and member of the stage crew can successfully deliver on the singular goal of an outstanding live performance and experience for the audience.

In the outpouring of tributes that have followed Sondheim’s passing, one caught my attention. It was a CBS News broadcast called Lessons from Stephen Sondheim, the Teacher by David Pogue. Apparently Sondheim once said that if he wasn’t a musical composer, he would be a teacher. This was both surprising and unsurprising to me. Personally I learned many lessons from my theatre experience, which lasted through my college years and community theatre productions as a young adult. I learned how to lead, how to participate on teams, and how to manage my professional life. The most valuable lesson I took away is that everyone has some talent to offer, but it must be first tapped and then directed, so that the individual talent of each performer, member of the orchestra, and member of the stage crew can successfully deliver on the singular goal of an outstanding live performance and experience for the audience.

In the CBS tribute, Pogue shared three lessons from Sondheim that I believe are particularly apt for the moment we are in right now as independent school leaders.

Sondheim said, “Content dictates form.” Pogue explains this means that “the kind of music you're writing should depend on the character and the dramatic situation. You could describe the plot of the show ‘A Little Night Music’ as a dance among lovers — so every single song in that show is a variation on a waltz.” This includes Sondheim’s arguably most famous song, "Send in the Clowns." For independent school leaders, we might say, “Mission should dictate form.” The kind of school you promise to your families must be reflected in your program, budget and community. It’s important for school leaders, trustees and faculty to reflect on your work to ensure it properly aligns with your stated mission and that resources are allocated to those areas that are most mission-centered. This helps your school avoid perilous mission creep.

It is necessary to create this space and take the time to do it so that our school’s value proposition is unique and stands out from other educational options within our market. There are no shortcuts.

Some of you may already know that Sondheim’s musical lyrics are complex, filled with inner and outer rhyming structures. If you’re not familiar with them, listen to “I’m Not Getting Married Today,” and you will see what I mean. Sondheim said, “Put in the time to make the rhymes perfect.” When I think about our member schools, I know that time is our most precious commodity. It takes time to innovate, it takes time to implement a technological solution, it takes time to analyze our budgets to ensure we are financially resourcing areas that will make the greatest impact on students. It is necessary to create this space and take the time to do it so that our school’s value proposition is unique and stands out from other educational options within our market. There are no shortcuts.

Finally, it’s debated who coined the phrase, “Be willing to kill your darlings,” but it was a lesson Sondheim lived by. Pogue explains this means that “if you have a line, or a song, or even an entire show that's not working, you've got to be willing to throw it out, no matter how much you love it.” And this may be the most important lesson of all. Independent schools, and nonprofits in general, are not very good at this. But, if there is a program that is not mission aligned, under-enrolled, or too costly compared to its benefits, we owe it to ourselves to sunset it, and dedicate our time and resources to other areas. This is more easily said than done, but at a time where we work so diligently to earn every tuition and fundraising dollar, it is incumbent upon us to apply them to what our students and families truly value and what we can responsibly resource and deliver.

As the calendar year ends, I’m reflecting on the months behind us, and frankly, bracing for what 2022 may have in store, from technical delivery of education and continued response to an unpredictable pandemic, to the push and pull that our diversity, equity and inclusivity efforts demand. But that’s life, isn’t it? We got through this year, and we will get through next. And as we venture forward, the truth of Sondheim’s lyrics from one of my all-time favorite shows ring in my head: “Into the woods we go again/ We have to every now and then/ Into the woods, no telling when/ We have to take the journey.”

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Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.

From Net Assets NOW, December 6, 2021. Read past issues of CEO Notebook.

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