Show them.  Don’t tell them.  Stories speak louder than statements.  We love to watch truths revealed in story.  Stories engage us and endure in our memories.  Tribal shamans have understood it for millenia in the crafting of myths to guide their people in behaviors and attitudes.  The great novelists understand it.  Lately, branding and marketing people have begun to embrace the idea of story.  Still, I was caught off guard last week as I heard a television director tell his story, only to uncover valuable leadership lessons from the set.

Outlander Obsession

I could give you a dozen reasons why I love the television series, Outlander.  For today, I will give you just one – the cast interacts with its fans outside the show in ways I have never seen before.  Whether manufactured or real, and you know by now which camp I am in, there is a humility and accessibility to this cast that is extraordinary in fandom.  I feel a bit sheepish and geeked-out to admit that I have been drawn into the fan base to that extent, but so be it.  I choose my followings carefully, and when I do, I am “all-in”!

Outcasts Podcast

I was excited to learn that two Outlander cast members, David Berry and Tim Downie, had started a podcast featuring key cast and staff members as guests.  They call it Outcasts, and it is available on all podcast platforms.  Beyond my devotion to Outlander, I never really understood how a television show takes shape.  Berry is a terrific interviewer and Downie just hilarious.  As actors themselves, both offer valuable perspective on their craft and the process to boot.  It was the July 19 episode with director Stephen Woolfenden that caught me by surprise.

Woolfenden was not trying to teach anyone about leadership.  He was simply describing some of his key beliefs and practices in a successful directing effort.  I wasn’t looking, but the ideas found me, as universal truths tend to do in story.  Here are my favorite gold nuggets from the hour.

Vision, the Safety Plan, and Corruption

The vision is gained in rehearsal.  After that, it is all about execution.  According to Woolfenden, “Part of the process of pre-production is to work out a way that a scene will work, making notes, and selling it to all stakeholders.  Every day if you are prepared as a director, you have a plan that will get you, with no one else’s input, through the day.  That’s your safety plan.  But what you do want is that journey to be corrupted by everyone else’s creativity.”

The word “corruption” sounds sinister but Woolfenden uses it in the best possible way, “There is nothing better than to have cast members coming in set with creative input.  Fill in the detail with performance beats and interpretation and personality and character beats.  Every day, you almost have to sell a vision to a cast and create an atmosphere where you are never bullying a performance or bullying a methodology to a scene, where you are finding it together.  But you have to be honest.”

Do your people believe in all honesty that their creative input is valued for the final flourishes?

Trust and Understanding

I loved the conversation on trust.  Here is a man charged with directing veteran actors, striving as above for a collaborative, creative space in which a basic “safety” plan can be magnified to something much greater.  David Berry, the series’ Lord John Grey, offered some perspective on what the director is up against, “You want to trust that you have both invested in this thing in equal measure and you both have an understanding of the character.  Sometimes actors get anxious that the director does not understand your character as well as you do, or NO ONE understands the character the way you do.”

All the world’s a stage….do we really understand team members, or do we just like directing them to do things?  It simply will not work to order, “Now, go get creative!” without the difficult relational work that comes before.


Leaders often must stretch people out of comfort zones or assign roles to which they think they are unsuited.  The organization needs it. Dealing with resistance is difficult.  Sometimes people need to understand that you see things in them that perhaps they cannot see in themselves.  Would that we all had 20/20 self-knowledge!

Here’s what one director told David Berry while he played a role outside Outlander, after Berry pushed back with his own ideas about his character’s capabilities, “Well, think about this.  Your character can do anything.  Your character can literally do anything.  You’re putting the parameters on what he can and can’t do.  Berry then offered, “It taught me to open my mind to possibility and defer to hierarchy”.  As Woolfenden put it earlier, not bullying, but finding it together.

Sometimes we must operate on borrowed belief.

Controlling It, Or Adding Value?

Woolfenden drove right to the heart of servant leadership when he described the level of ownership he feels with each episode, operating in complex structure of strong-willed artists and business people.  It is so much more about what you give than what you control, because you will never be able to control it all.  “Learn to deal with what your responsibilities are and what voice you have, and it’s to know the voice you have and how to use it.  It’s all about being one of the authors on a show like this.  You are not the author.  I would not be doing it if I did not feel I was expressing myself but at the same time I know that I am a company player.  I know that I am a company player.”

Woolfenden went on to describe how every time he works he gets many more shots than he has to in order to help the final show assembly.  He knows how important it is to his colleagues to have options.  As Woolfenden seeks creative input to enhance the safety plan, he also knows that he can offer team members his own creativity, even if they do not know its value just yet.  It just may be a difference maker as the final cut is made.  No extra charge!

Outlander is on Starz.  A time-travel, romance, history mash-up enveloped in war– give it a try! You can find Outcasts on any major podcast channel.   Looking forward to another great season, even if no new leadership lessons from the set!