“Ok, one last time, go show them what we have. Let’s give it everything one last time.”

It is the middle of July. We have all spent the last 4 weekends performing Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ to audiences in various open-air venues throughout Yorkshire. The cast have invested most of their Saturdays since March in preparation for performing these 17 shows.

We are all amateurs, involved purely for pleasure. No wages, no expenses, in fact most of us have spent money to be here. We have now played to a total of over 10,000 people, over the last month.

Our rewards come in 2 ways. Firstly, the audience response. The laughs, the feedback and the applause at the finale. The things most people think are the prime drivers for performers. Secondly, and actually much more importantly to us, the reward of shared connection. Connection with each other, being part of something greater than ourselves and creating an experience that only exists because we all came together. That is the reward those who haven’t done anything like this probably think less about. The amazing feeling when everyone and everything flows together.

Shared connection and purpose

We are an ensemble. Not a group, not a team, an ensemble. Something that rarely gets talked about in Leadership and almost never in organisational conversations, yet it is the thing many organisations aspire to. The fabled ‘High Performing Team’.

An ensemble is less of a structure, it’s more of an organism. A living thing that can adapt and flex, on the fly. The ensemble can flow around problems and improvise almost instantaneously. It has a sense of ‘shared consciousness’ and clear purpose, so that when change happens, every part of the organism knows how it is connected and knows what it is there to do. It might take a different path to achieve it from yesterday, or tomorrow, but its purpose will endure.
On stage, we might skip some lines, work around props not being there or have to adapt to new constraints. For instance, we performed in 3 different open-air locations in 4 weeks, often seeing it for the first time, when we set up. Given those variables, we adapted and stayed focused on our purpose: To tell a story, engage the audience and have lots of fun.

When it comes to leaders, an ensemble has no leads or stars. We are all leaders and all followers. Each member may need to step in or step back at any point, depending on an emerging situation and the needs of the performance. Teams usually have defined leaders, managers or captains, depending on the context. Groups often have someone setting the agenda or directing them. An ensemble exists by itself.

So, do ensembles happen by magic, or just emerge? No; they are grown and nurtured through investment of time and patience. They are created by focussing as much on the relationships of the performers, as the content they are performing. Rehearsal time is invested in building trust, communicating openly and nurturing relationships, as much as learning lines or exploring characters. Members will go through ups and downs. Yet they will begin to grow together, with the right support, refocussing and guidance.

‘That’s all very well’

“OK, hold on Colin”, you may say, “that’s all very well and good for something harmless like theatre, but what about the real world, where it really matters!”

Well, consider the fighting force of the US military, that’s an environment where the costs are greater, where it really matters. A matter of life and death. In his recent book, Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal describes the transformation of his force in Iraq, from a rigid hierarchical, slow moving behemoth to an agile, adaptable Team of Teams, able to move at the same pace as the networked, non-centralised threat he was facing.

One of the core concepts he describes as being key to their success, was creating precisely this sense of ‘shared consciousness’ and clear purpose we have created in an ensemble. For them, this was derived from developing relationships and building deep trust, as well as the competencies of highly skilled operatives, such as Navy SEALs. It is this agility and the ability to flow, that will define competitive advantage in our constantly emerging environments.

Building adaptable, agile teams to address the ever-increasing complexity of our changing world is a very real and immediate challenge. One that no organisation can ignore, if they want to stay relevant and fit for purpose.
So, when you are thinking teams and leadership, maybe ask yourself a few of these questions.

  • Are you a group, a team or an ensemble?
  • Which form meets your needs, to achieve what you need?
  • What are you doing to nurture teams that just flow?
  • How are you investing in the relationships, as well as just the competencies or content?

Is it time to look at how you and your people are working together and whether that form is fit for purpose?

“A group, a team or an ensemble, that is the question!”


Ref: Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World – General Stanley McChrystal et al.


We at Regent Leadership work with you to help answer these questions, to enable you to build the agility, adaptability and relationships to perform in our most challenging times yet.

If you want to know more, get in touch.