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5 Great Books to Grow Your SM Skills

When there isn’t a show to stage manage, what is a stage manager to do? It’s a great time for professional development. A time to reflect, review, and renew. As I’m sitting in my apartment in New York, I’ve been thinking about how all my actor friends are practicing their craft at home. Voice lessons and dance classes can all be done virtually, but as a stage manager in isolation, what can we do? So I’ve compiled this list of my top 5 books for stage managers. These are not “stage manager” books. Instead, they focus on the leadership attributes so important to our profession. Even though you can’t actively practice your craft, you can still be growing as a stage manager, as a leader, and as a person throughout this challenging time. Once this is over and we get back to making theatre, we are going to need to be at our very best.

1. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey

This classic best seller, written by the great Stephen Covey back in 1989, shares eye opening principles to achieve any goal. His approach is based on concepts of character, values, and human dignity that feel like they are eternal, even if you’ve never thought of them before. The seven habits guide you through gaining true independence, to the interdependence necessary for teamwork, and achievement of any goal, in “business” or show biz.

There have been numerous editions published, including some for kids and teens. The concepts are truly universal and have literally benefited millions of readers of all ages. These seven simple principles include revelations such as: response-ability, the important-urgent matrix, and various ways to “sharpen your saw.” The habits Covey describes are simple and elegant, a concrete approach to your own skill set and how to lead a group.

2. The Radical Leap by Steve Farber

Steve Farber’s parable takes us on an adventure to discover the meaning of extreme leadership. A top motivational leadership speaker and consultant, Farber encapsulates his approach with the acronym: L.E.A.P. It’s a simple, yet powerful way to become what he calls an “extreme leader.”

Farber breaks down each category of L.E.A.P. (Love, Energy, Audacity, & Proof) with great examples that are woven into a story that demonstrates the power of this philosophy. In essence, by loving what you do, you create the energy to reach for audacious goals, and prove you are willing to do the work to get there. Farber says the most audacious goal is to change the world, which really resonates today. In our business we can change our small “w” world in a variety of positive ways, and those all lead to making changes in the big “W” World.

3. Give and Take by Adam Grant

In his book, Adam Grant revels what he learned through years of research into people and organizations. He presents a new perspective that examines our personal habits as givers, takers, or matchers and how these personality types interact and function in business.

Give and Take was named one of the best books of 2013 by Amazon, Apple, as well as the Wall Street Journal, and Oprah is a fan too!

Through illuminating stories and hard evidence, he shows how ourselves and our organizations can function better by understanding the power and results of giving, taking, and matching. He highlights tools for effective collaboration, networking, negotiation and leadership.

Understanding the three personality traits, the effectiveness of the different approaches, and how they intersect and interact is revelatory and insightful. As a stage manager, who gives so much for others, his conclusions are very powerful.

4. The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor

Shawn Achor co-designed the Happiness course at Harvard, and like Adam Grant, his book is the result of years of research. The Happiness Advantage shows how the core principles of positive psychology can enrich our lives, improve our performance, benefit our careers, and achieve success. Achor demonstrates the power of mindset in individuals and groups revealing how mindset (aka happiness) does more to influence and drive actual success than actual success results in changes in your state of mind (or happiness). So, if you want to do better, you have to feel better first! He discusses various positivity techniques and gratitude practices to reframe your state of mind and how performance and achievement grow as a result. These insights can do wonders in our lives and work as stage managers. Happiness does not have to be elusive. The power of mindset can create happiness &, therefore, is a skill worth cultivating. You can bring positive energy wherever you go. Or if you can’t go anywhere (like now), you can find the way to be happy right where you are.

5. Forged In Crisis by Nancy Koehn

The last book on this list is not one that falls in to psychology or “self-help” categories. It’s historical. Forged In Crisis by Nancy Koehn tells five inspiring stories of leaders dealing with a critical situations: Abraham Lincoln, the explorer Ernest Shackleton, abolitionist Fredrick Douglas, environmentalist Rachel Carson, and clergyman Diethrich Bonhoeffer. They all faced crisis that required leadership to survive. Koehn shares their stories and shows how each person overcame unique and massive challenges. The book also probes the development of each person, revealing the process of how they grew to be a great leader: courageous, powerful, and capable. Through well researched case studies, Koehn shows us universal truths in leadership.

As valuable as mindset, philosophy, and approach are, this book gives us context and perspective on the art of leadership. The development & achievement of these leaders and the solutions they forged, are valuable lessons for stage managers. These lessons help us be the best we can, no matter what the circumstance.

These books present various approaches to our work and can help us grow as leaders.

Happy reading and happy leading!

If you like these suggestions check out the stage managers book shelf on The Stage Managers Association website:

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