Tag Archives: Mikhail Baryshnikov

Twyla Tharp and Steve Jobs – (There are Good Tough Bosses and Bad Tough Bosses…)

Everybody probably has a bad boss horror story or two.  And there are some genuine horror stories out there.

But, there are good bad tough bosses and bad tough bosses.  What is the difference?  One difference may be this:  is the boss tough because the end result is worth all the coaching, coaxing, demonstrating, demanding, until the people get it right?

I think Steve Jobs and Twyla Tharp are two great exemplars of this kind of tough boss.

Twyla Tharp:

I recently ran across this wonderful 2006 article about the Kennedy Center Honoree Twyla Tharp, To Dance Beneath the Diamond Skies by Alex Witchel.  Here are some key excerpts:

But it is probably time to say this: There was not a person in that theater, including the 19 performers, musicians and production staff, who did not admire Tharp. Those new to her are scared of her, those used to her are over her, because they know that behind the barking lies a devotion to them, to the work — always, always the work — that is religious in its fervor. Yes, she is a control freak, a perfectionist, a zealot in forming a vision and stopping at nothing to see it realized. But when it is realized, when her dances are good-better-best, flying off the stage like some biblical fire on a mountaintop, there is nothing in the world like them. Twenty-three years ago, Robert Joffrey said that Tharp’s work “didn’t look like anyone else’s.” It still doesn’t.

“There is nothing in the world like them.”  The end result may just be worth the cost it took to get there.  She simply made the best better.  And she also made the “average” much better than ever before.  In her book, The Collaborative Habit, Tharp wrote:

As a choreographer, my task is to make the best possible work with the dancers I find in the room on any given day. 

This is simply the greatest description of the day-to-day work of being the boss I have ever read.  It is the job of the boss (manager, supervisor) to make the best possible work with the people in the room, on the team, at any given time.

By the way, there is a wonderful story in the article about the time Twyla Tharp had to show Baryshnikov how it needed to be done:

Huot sat at one of the computers and played footage of Baryshnikov in rehearsal.  “What’s that?” Tharp asked shortly.  “This is the one where he can’t do what you do,” Huot said, his tone gently teasing. “It’s your favorite thing in the world, which is why I kept it for you.” On the tape, Baryshnikov held a cigarette, shirtless, as Tharp demonstrated the steps. Hers were vivid, crisp. His were blurry, indistinct. Impatiently, she showed him again. He turned away.

“That’s right, go pout,” Tharp said mockingly to the screen. The next shots were of him in performance, his steps breathtaking. “Yeah, he got it,” Tharp said.

She knew how to do the steps; she demonstrated the steps, and she pushed Baryshnikov until he “got it.”

…To be a Tharp dancer is to master complex, intricate movements and steps that can defy gravity — in 1975 Baryshnikov told The Times: “It is very difficult to learn her steps.. . .One variation alone took me three weeks to learn, working a few hours every day.”

Steve Jobs:

Regarding Jobs, the stories are endless, and somewhat legendary.  He certainly could be something of a world-class pain to work with.  But, he too could bring out the very best in people – more than they knew they had in them.  Consider these revealing excerpts from the Walter Isaacson book, Steve Jobs:

For all of his obnoxious behavior, Jobs also had the ability to instill in his team an esprit de corps. After tearing people down, he would find ways to lift them up and make them feel that being part of the Macintosh project was an amazing mission. Every six months he would take most of his team on a two-day retreat at a nearby resort.

Jobs had latched onto what he believed was a key management lesson from his Macintosh experience: You have to be ruthless if you want to build a team of A players. “It’s too easy, as a team grows, to put up with a few B players, and they then attract a few more B players, and soon you will even have some C players,” he recalled. “The Macintosh experience taught me that A players like to work only with other A players, which means you can’t indulge B players.”

“What I’m best at doing is finding a group of talented people and making things with them,” he told the magazine.

Business Week asked him why he treated employees so harshly, Jobs said it made the company better.

…and his great talent, Jobs said, was to “get A performances out of B players.” At Apple, Jobs told him, he would get to work with A players.

The literature about leadership is pretty unanimous about this key role a leader plays.  In Liz Wiseman’s book, Multipliers, she writes that the leader has to “multiply” the good effects of the workers, and never diminish them.  A good leader “multiplies’ the results of the workers he/she leads.  In Kouzes and Pozner’s Encouraging the Heart, they argue that for people to be their best, they must be encouraged, in their hearts, by the one who leads them.  And when they are so encouraged, they become more productive, actually better at their jobs.

Whatever Twyla Tharp and Steve Jobs had, or did, it worked.  They both developed quite a track record of bringing out the very best in the people who worked for them.  (Of course, Twyla Tharp is still at it…).

If you are a leader, this is the test, isn’t it?  Are you making your people better?  Are you pushing them to do more than they even knew they could do?  Are you making the average much better, and the best even better still?

If not, you’ve got some leadership skills to develop.

About those “Right People on the Bus” – Thoughts on Talent, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Triumph of the “Lesser Names”

As a choreographer, my task is to make the best possible work with the dancers I find in the room on any given day.

Twyla Tharp, The Collaborative HabitLife Lessons for Working Together

————

It’s a broken record.  Everybody knows it.  If you have the wrong people in your organization, on your team, you are in trouble.  You will not accomplish your goals.  You will not take your organization to the next level.  And I’ve read the books; I’ve quoted the findings, the recommendations.  They all make sense.

Getting the right talent is everything.  “Do you have the right people on the bus?” goes the mantra-like question.

But…but…

Well, let me put it simply – until you get the perfect person to fill that all-important seat on your bus, that all-important slot on your team, there is a better, more realistic solution, and Twyla Tharp gives us the insight:

my task is to make the best possible work with the dancers I find in the room on any given day. 

Twyla Tharp has worked with the very best (Billy Joel and his music; the music of Frank Sinatra; the dancing of Mikhail Baryshnikov, and a plethora of others), but she also has worked with many, many dancers who may not reach such heights in the reputation, or talent, department that these superstars represent.  So, what does she do?  She still churns out terrific work, because she views her task as this:

to make the best possible work with the dancers I find in the room on any given day. 

Consider the lowly, seemingly lesser names of the Dallas Mavericks.  OK, Dirk Nowitzki is a “superstar,” but his surrounding cast, the other members of the team? – Coach Rick Carlisle simply made the best possible work with the dancers he found in the room on this given day (in this season).  And, lo and behold, they rose to the occasion, and they won it all.  And, by the way, those lesser names – JET (Jason Terry), J. J. Barea, Tyson Chandler, Shawn Marion, the practically ancient Jason Kidd, and the entire team– they’re not so lesser anymore!

So, fantasize about that perfect team all you want to (while your team fantasizes about that perfect team leader!).  But take a look around you.  There are people with talent – great untapped talent – ready to go to work.  Work with these people.  They are the ones in the room on this given day.  Work with them to do the best this group can do on this day.

Yes, it might be hard work to make this happen.  “The best possible work” is never easy.  But, give it your best shot with the people on your team now.

You might be surprised!

“We” Are Better Than “Me” – Wisdom From Twyla Tharp’s The Collaborative Habit

Collaboration is the buzzword of this new millennium.  For some of us, it’s a superior way of working; for almost all of us, it’s inevitable.

I’ve just finished reading The Collaborative Habit by Twyla Tharp.  (I’m presenting a synopsis of this book at Take Your Brain to Lunch, this week in Dallas).  It is a good book.  Not as good as her earlier book, The Creative Habit – one of my all-time favorite books.  But still, a good book.  And it is an absolutely wonderful collection of stories.

Tharp & Baryshnikov

She tells, throughout the book, of her collaborations with dancers, company directors, and artists from Frank Sinatra to Billy Joel to Mikhail Baryshnikov…  But there are plenty of non-dance stories sprinkled through the book.  Her premise is simple, and concurs with the overall wisdom from books such as The Wisdom of Crowds and Wikinomics.  Here it is:

We are greater than me.

And, as fads and approaches and changes come and go, and get refined, and are jettisoned, there is a deep need to focus on the wisdom and the efforts of us over the wisdom and effort of me.  In other words, collaboration is not a fad – it is a lasting necessity.

Here are a couple of quotes:

We are a culture that consumes and discards in almost one motion.  Just think of the bright ideas for more efficient and humane ways of working that have come and gone in the last few decades…

and…

Reality’s tutorials can be harsh.  You can run your life “my way,” struggling alone, or “our way,” struggling to make a group effort work.

Here’s a simple question, asked in different ways:

Do you play well with others?
Are you a good, effective, team player?
Do you collaborate well?

If the answer is no, it’s time to learn!  Collaboration is the name of the new game in town, and those who don’t learn to do this well will get left behind.