What leaders can learn from Hugh Jackman and the Greatest Showman rehearsal sessions

the greatest showman

I’d been hearing buzz about The Greatest Showman since before Christmas. Loosely (and I use the word “loosely” loosely) based on the life of P.T. Barnum, the movie is gaining popularity quickly via word-of-mouth.

Musicals are not a must for me; typically I can take them or leave them. I loved Les Mis and liked La La Land, but have not seen Chicago nor Moulin Rouge, nor are they on the agenda.

He who is without sin among you…

On Tuesday of this week, however, my pastor’s wife posted the first clip below. As the first part explains, it is a video of a practice session to get the Greatest Showman greenlit. I have probably watched it (or had it playing in the background) thirty times since first watching it. Maybe fifty. It’s enthralling to me as a Christian and as a leader.

After watching two videos from the practice session, there are at least four leadership takeaways from watching Hugh Jackman.

He showed up and fulfilled his role when not expected.

Arguably, Jackman had to show up for the rehearsal. After waiting eight-months, surgery or no surgery, it was do-or-die time for the project to move ahead.

But, he did not have to sing, and having been warned by his doctor, had every reason not to try. As the video reveals, though, Jackman could not stay on the sidelines. His stand-in begins, but soon Jackman takes over.

Hugh Jackman’s decision to jump-in is not unlike a sports figure coming in after an injury to lead the team to victory.

He lead the rehearsal group to a higher level of performance.

The song starts slow and low; it is reflective. When the chorus kicks it, it begins to pick up steam. However, when the camera pans right for the first time—to an obviously professional group of singers—it sounds like a rehearsal. Faces are glued to sheet music and efforts are made to hit the notes. A couple of folks are into it, but most seem to be trying to keep their place.

When the camera pans back left (ultimately toward a group that appears to be leading the different parts), Jackman begins to clap out the beat. He looks at several people intentionally; it seems clear he wants another level—he’s coaching them to up their game.

When the camera pans back right, Jackman is standing with arms spread wide open, as visual cue that he’s not holding anything back.

This kind of encouragement is essential to leadership. If you would lead, you must have the ability to encourage/train/cajole/inspire others to a higher level of performance than they would. And, you can do it without griping, murmuring, or complaining. You can do it by inspiring.

He was exuberant, passionate, and immersed in the experience.

This was no “Hey, everyone, eyes on me. I’m the star.” situation. Honestly, if you didn’t know Hugh Jackman as a world-renowned actor/perfomer, you’d assume he’s nothing more than the lead in this rehearsal.

But, even as the lead actor and the biggest name in the room, Jackman could not avoid the building energy. At the end, having busted out his stitches, he was obviously moved in the moment, by the moment.

Leaders have to be willing for their human side to show. Not to do so is to put forth a façade, and, eventually, people will not willingly follow a person they cannot trust is real.

He leant personal support to a fellow-performer who was struggling through a song.

I don’t know Keala Settle (but apparently she’s very popular), but nothing could be more clear than something visceral happened to her during the singing of this song. It went from rehearsal to meaningful. Watch below, but before you do, look at Hugh Jackman’s face in the still-frame. He’s all in, not detached.

Eventually, Settle reached a point she herself says she was fearful. It’s then she reaches out for Jackman’s hand and he reciprocates. For a few moments, they hold hands as she sings.

Leaders may not need to hold the hand of a team member, but there will always be an opportunity to give personal support. If you want to lead, you have to engage—when necessary—at a personal level even if the team is on a professional level.

As my friend, Philip Nation, notes:

I get it that the room was filled with professional actors and singers. But there is no denying that Jackman has an emotional connection to this story. He was able to communicate that connection through his acting and singing. Not that I have a man-crush on Hugh Jackman, but it is impressive that he is able to play Wolverine/Logan, Jean Valjean, and P.T. Barnum. If I cannot believe more strongly in the mission of the church than Jackman believed in the necessity of this film, then I should pack it up and find something else to do. He believed deeply in telling this story. It was evident.

If you want to have that kind of impact, lead the same way.

(If you like the inside info kind of thing, here’s an interview with Keala Settle.)

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.