Integrity in successful leaders: Stella Adler scrubbed the floor

January 8, 2015 by Joshua
in Art, Leadership

This post follows up, “Integrity in successful leaders: Gandhi cleaned toilets,” on integrity and sticking with your values.

I came across the anecdote below about Stella Adler from a student of hers. Adler was one of the great acting teachers of the twentieth century. According to Wikipedia she taught Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor, Dolores del Río, Lena Horne, Robert De Niro, Elaine Stritch, Martin Sheen, Manu Tupou, Harvey Keitel, Melanie Griffith, Peter Bogdanovich and Warren Beatty, among others. That’s quite a list!

She was like royalty in the acting world, coming from a family filled with other great actors. She didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want, which makes her actions below all the more meaningful (source).

The power of Stella’s truth shook me during tech weekend of Happy Journey. Our cast of five had made a mess of the backstage area, which served as our dressing room and all else. The room was way too small, with costumes and makeup, clothes and books, but still, we hadn’t helped the situation by strewing coffee cups, cigarette butts, used tissues, and stuff in general. Stella came backstage to greet us before rehearsal, and to say that she was appalled would not be overstating. She called for a garbage can, a bucket of water, some detergent, and a scrub brush; and after we had cleared away the trash, she got down on her 73-year-old hands and knees to scrub the floor. She wouldn’t let any of us help. In discomfort, we watched. I wanted to grab the bucket away from her, and instead I cried. Someone begged her to stop. When the floor was clean, for the first time, she spoke: “The actor is the sanity of the theatre. It’s up to you to keep the theatre healthy.” This authority permeated Stella’s teaching and, it seems to me, shapes her discourse.

Okay, she played the martyr, but as a teacher to make a point to students. In any case, what do you love so much that you’ll work to ascend to the highest levels, but also so much that, whatever your status, you’ll get on your hands and knees to give yourself to it?

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