Leadership Lessons from Les Mis

Les Miserables Palace Theatre

“There is nothing like a dream to create the future.”

Les Miserables


The world’s longest running musical, Les Miserables, can teach leaders more than what comes with determination, forgiveness, salvation and grace. The production itself – seen by over 60 million people in 42 countries – gives us valuable lessons in the identification, recruitment and nurturing of talent.


Each year the production reinvents itself in the search for constant improvement. The producer Cameron Mackintosh works with the show’s technical director Chris Keys. One of the things they look at is how best to refresh the on-stage talent pool.


The cast changes every twelve months. The roles remain the same. Sometimes the show will be given a boost by a one off such as the film production or Susan Boyle winning on TV.  There are 2000 applications for 32 places. About 400 are auditioned over a very intense period of six weeks. Most arrive through agencies or from theatre schools. If you choose this profession, or have it chosen for you, best get used to rejection.  Success is not just about being able to sing and to perform – not all can do both – but to align with the values of the production. If in auditions you don’t demonstrate that you can align to the core values of the production as below, then your singing and acting abilities won’t be enough.


  • Creativity
  • Passion
  • Commitment
  • Dedication
  • Inspiration
  • Excellence
  • Education, Development and Learning
  • Pride
  • Truth
  • History


In many ways it’s like a school looking beyond a potential teacher recruit’s subject knowledge and ability to teach an observed lesson and more to their personal values, their character and their ability to be part of something bigger.


The Director tells new talent ‘there’s no room for negativity in a long-running show.’ It’s no different to a school. Les Mis is looking for talent who will commit to the production and to the role. There is no space for big egos or people who are not team players.


With up to 8 shows a week each of nearing 4 hours duration you need stamina. There is huge strain, so performers are expected to keep themselves physically and mentally fir, follow a good diet with no alcohol, fast food or chocolate! When they look for talent Keys and his team are looking for young people who will bring energy, insight and dedication. Rehearsals are 12 hours daily and last five weeks and during this time the cast ‘co-construct the production’ – each brings their own talent to the experience. The standards are set very high and internal competition and the weight of past successes helps keep them high.


Along the way performers will suffer stage fright, stress and dips in form. The social and professional capital lodged in the team and guided by the leadership will tow them through. The key leadership messages are: to look for the person behind the presenting talent when recruiting and ask do they align with what we are trying to achieve together; set very high, exacting standards in both preparation and performance; create a supportive team culture to help cope with the strain of the role; involve the school community in reinvention for improvement. Finally, have big dreams: there is nothing like a dream to create the future.


Alistair Smith worked with Chris Keys as part of his role as Designated Learning Consultant to the Football Association. The FA have a number of partners in their Leadership Development Programme. For more see

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