Peter O’Toole’s School of Management

Peter OToole

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Surely one of the better dinner companions would be Peter O’Toole. He also might be one of the better professors of business management.

O’Toole began his stage career at the age of seventeen. He went to RADA on a scholarship where his classmates included Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Richard Harris. Even since the 1962 landmark film, Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole has been one of the most creative and forceful actors on stage and screen.

Who knew, though, that O’Toole could be such a good mentor to business leaders?

As an “ancient old pro speaking,” O’Toole provided his insights to Dave Itzkoff for the New York Times’ ArtsBeat section. At the age of 78, O’Toole knows a thing or two about process and product.

Here’s O’Toole on stage directors:

I don’t approve of theater directors. Do you know the history of it? The old word was getterup, to get a show up, and to get a show up you had to know everything on that stage that surrounds a production and make it work. Including lighting it, finding the costumes, everything. The last thing they need to do was talking to the actors. We can do our job, thank you very much indeed. Just get on with it and mount a production. On came a load of children from the university who’d had an enthusiasm for amateur drama. [laughs haughtily] Like these clowns, Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn and all this bunch of clowns. I won’t speak to them. When you’ve earned your living on the stage for 10, 15 years, then come and tell me how to earn mine. Go on the stage and earn your living for a dozen years, and get some humility.

Although “these clowns” have done very well in creating some of the most popular and intriguing theatre over the last decades, O’Toole’s point is worth understanding and applying.

At the end of the day, the experience in the theatre is about what takes place between the actor and the audience. No directorial concept or designer’s fantasy world can replace this core value. Besides, once that curtain goes up (that is, if a curtain is part of the director’s concept), the actors are on the their own. That’s why we buy our tickets to the theatre. It’s not about the intellectual exercise of seeing an an old play in a new setting; it’s about the fun and danger of being in the present tense with the actors.

Business can also heed O’Toole’s advice. Too often CEO’s behave like “these clowns”. They think the company is all about their overall design. However, the customer interacts with individual employees. The success of the business relies on the success of the service exchange. As with actors under the thumb of the director, employees don’t perform their best if they feel as though they have no stake in the outcome. Employees can’t do their job if they are a cog in the CEO’s grand scheme with no say, no independence, no opportunity to act on their own. All O’Toole asks of the director is to be inspiring, to give responsibility, and to let actors be at the center of the action. Isn’t that a good goal for a company strategy?

Many years ago, I learned the same lesson. In a New York production of Thomas Otway’s restoration classic, Venice Preserv’d, I was more focused on my concept than on the actors. Early in the rehearsals, one of the actors told me that Thomas Otway had come to him in dream the night before and asked him to deliver a message to me: “Why don’t you go and write your own play.” It was good advice.

What happens to CEO’s who don’t expect to be informed by their “actors” but try to tell everybody exactly how to do their jobs? Here’s how O’Toole handles the situation:

Anybody who would do that to me would get a punch in the head…Oh yes, some people have tried, and they’ve had their reward. From then on, I don’t speak a word to them. From me, you get a mild expression of disgust, and then I walk off and have a beer.

Surely, a lot people, in theatre or in business, would prefer to join O’Toole for that beer.

O’Toole has some films coming out soon. He is always worth watching. Now we know he’s worthing listening to, as well.

Never at a loss for an insight, here are some other of O’Toole’s best quotes:

My idea of heaven is moving from one smoke-filled room to another.

For me, life has either been a wake or a wedding.

The only exercise I take is walking behind the coffins of friends who took exercise.

When did I realize I was God? Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized I was talking to myself.

- Bill Reichblum

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