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Embracing theatre for leadership transformation: Reflections on #Segal2023 Annual Meeting

Denis Muwanguzi, our Director of Programs, facilitated a session on theatre for leadership transformation during the most recent Segal Family Foundation's Annual Meeting. He shares his insights and experience!

How did I end up there…

“#Segal2023: We want your input” was such a captivating subject line of an e-mail I received from Segal Family Foundation. The foundation lives and practices its values beyond providing flexible and unrestricted funding. Segal sought input from it’s partners to put together sessions for the 2 day long annual meeting. And there I was, with an opportunity to share some of my gifts and knowledge acquired through lived experience and mentorship from my long time friend Mecca Burns and my dad. I stepped into the AD1 Room at Kigali Convention Center with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. As a facilitator, I wanted my role to be as a guide to participants to connect with each other and resonate with organisational experiences.

Setting the Stage

The session began with a warm welcome, setting the tone for what was to come. As the participants - primarily from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa and the US, took their seats, I encouraged them to break the ice by introducing themselves and what they were expecting from the session. They were indeed curious about “theatre and leadership” in an organisational context and smiles and friendly chatter filled the room, and I could feel the atmosphere changing from one of “ sit and listen conference session-ready” to openness.

Creating a Safe Space

Tying the session actions to organisational and real-life experience can be a tricky call yet my primary goal was to create a safe and inclusive space where participants could share their thoughts and experiences without judgment. To achieve this, I set ground rules that emphasised active listening and empathy and I entirely used fun theatre games to seamlessly engage participants into conversations. It was essential to make them feel like they were not spectators but “spect-actors”.


Engaging Activities

It was at this point that I felt memories of my mentors run through my mind. I was lucky to be trained by talented people, from Bernard Mukisa and Åse Bjurström from the age of 12 to Mecca Burns and Brad Stoller from when I was in my early 20s. I felt the excitement from and connection to my past sessions I held in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Sweden as I asked everyone in the room to stand up and introduce themselves. A series of 4 theatre games followed, designed to challenge perceptions and encourage self-reflection.

  • "Handshake greeting" demonstrated the value of solidarity

  • "Circle Dash" non-verbal, no-gesture communication and the value of consent

  • "Always and only" shed light on alternating and sharing leadership

  • "Hand of power" vividly demonstrateds responsive leadership

Through thought provoking questions and interactive exercises, participants were encouraged to delve into their own personal and professional journeys. The room buzzed with energy as people shared stories, connecting on a level beyond the superficial.


Moments of Vulnerability

A few participants shared their fears and insecurities during group reflections around stepping up into leadership roles. Or just taking the lead on anything. While others waited till the end to have a one-on-one chat about their experiences of holding a tight grip on the leadership of their organizations in ways that held back innovation and creativity from staff. And this resonates pretty to all of us who have started initiatives that grow beyond other's expectations. Through such and similar conversations, participants realized that they were not alone in their struggles and experiences. Witnessing this vulnerability was both humbling and inspiring, just like any other groups I have worked with before.


The 'Aha' Moments

As the session drew closer to the end, participants shared their "aha" moments. "I waited for cues on who would initiate the group movement but it took long to come. So I did"... one participant shared their experience during the "Always and Only" theatre game. Generally speaking, the group was a lot more active and reflections and conversation started taking way longer time than the run time for each theatre game. It was heartwarming to witness the transformation in individuals who had started as strangers but were now united by shared experiences. Some discovered new paths to leadership, while others gained the strength to overcome personal obstacles taking and owning space. Yet others realised the power of followers in influencing leaders actions or the value of just staying within their own skin.


Conclusion: A Lasting Impact

The conference session left an enduring impact on both the attendees and me. It reinforced the importance of theater for exploring vulnerability, empathy, and genuine human connections in any leadership structure. Secondly, how wide the follower - leader spectrum is and the power dynamics within. As a facilitator, I learned how valuable theater for leadership transformation is as valuable in global development and community leadership spheres as it is in the corporate and business world. And that I will keep the door open to explore theater for leadership transformation for all teams everywhere. We all learn best when we are having fun, and that's the unique value proposition for using theater to transform leadership, improve team dynamics and organizational health.

Looking back, I am grateful to the Segal Family Foundation for the opportunity to facilitate this session at #SEGAL2023. We bid farewell, exchanging contacts with over 5 organizations who expressed interest in working with their respective groups and supporting each other on respective journeys. I also realized that this was not the end but the beginning of lasting connections forged during an unforgettable conference session.

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