Last time I blogged, I shared a Tedx Cambridge talk by two friends of mine entitled How To Perform In Life’s High Stakes Moments. If you haven’t seen the talk yet, you can find it here. I strongly encourage you to watch that video if you haven’t yet. It is worth the 18 minutes to see how two professionals (Michael and Amy Port) can even transform a Tedx stage with its strict rules and red dot and expand the boundaries of what a Ted style talk can be.
I shared that video with you because I want to discuss the idea of leaders being performers as well.
Often the first reaction to the idea of leaders being performers is that it is fake. Leaders should be authentic people say, so if they are performing then obviously they are being inauthentic. I have to admit that was also my reaction when I first heard this idea and I am certainly all about being authentic.
I came to understand that we often equate performing with “putting on a show” or a telling a lie of some sort. Granted, acting has it’s roots in wearing masks and makeup, constructing facades and false fronts and entertaining audiences with make-believe and stories. However that is only part of its history. Actors and performers also have a long history of being truth tellers. The court “jester,” for example was often the one that could disagree with the king or queen without being threatening. Masked in humor and silliness, the truth that needed to be told could be told. Now sometimes it wouldn’t work out so well for the jester, nevertheless, that was part of that role.
What we now call nursery rhymes were typically songs calling out a regime for its poor practices or ridiculous behavior toward the populace. Later, performances would also tell stories of injustice and oppression in an attempt to change the course of society. None of this was perfect of course. Jesters would be killed, people would not take the performance seriously or the message would be too hidden to be realized and so forth. Yet often the only way for a truth to be told was through story and stage, especially prior to the rights of free speech, press, and assembly.
Ironically, actors were not held in very high esteem. They were considered fops, farceurs, phonies and often scam artists. Nowadays, people uderstandably object to celebrities using their fame to promote their personal and political agendas, or conversely they will completely buy into that agenda just because the celebrity promotes it. I get that too. Just because you are famous or played a starring role in a movie, that doesn’t make you an expert on the current hot topic. At the same time, it doesn’t disqualify you from an opinion or the freedom to push for your agenda. The fault lies not in the individual, but in our predilection to equate fame with authority.
But I digress. The issue at hand is whether leaders should be performers. I think yes and here’s why.
Simply put, leaders are already performers as are all human beings, leader or not. The Ports address this in the video by stating, “performance isn’t fake behavior, performance is authentic behavior in a manufactured environment.” What does this mean? What is authentic behavior in a manufactured environment?
Essentially, the point is this. We find ourselves in manufactured environments all the time, with work being a primary example. What could be more manufactured than a 1000 foot structure divided into various sized cubes with desks (standing or sitting), computers, phones, and so forth. How very artificial. And on top of that there are rules, both written and understood, about how you behave in that environment. There is a hierarchy you must navigate, a foreign culture to learn, and you must learn how to fit somewhere in that. So, we assume roles and characteristics in order to survive, thrive and succeed in this artificial jungle.
“Aha,” you say, “there you have it, the roles and characteristics you assume are inauthentic.” Not so fast my young Padawan. Those roles and characteristics MIGHT be inauthentic, but they don’t HAVE to be.
Let’s go back to acting for a moment. Think about the best actors. There is a difference between the very best actors and even one level down. By this, I don’t mean level of fame, I mean quality of performance. The best actors play their parts not by imitating or pretending, but by “becoming” the character to such an extent that we don’t see the actor anymore, we only see the character they are portraying. We know this because they can play wildly different roles and the only resemblance is the physical features, not the character. Compare Tom Hanks in Castaway with Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. Same actor, yet entirely different performances.
Contrast that to actors that seem to be playing the same character in every movie or production, just with a different name. They might do a great job, but there is little variation in the way the character is portrayed. The facial expressions, the emotional reactions, the interaction with the other characters, looks just like the last movie. I won’t name any famous actors for the second type, instead think of the typical high school actor, or that actor that plays action, then drama, then comedy, yet every character feels almost the same when you’re watching.
So, what makes the difference? Now I don’t know a lot about acting, but here is one thing I have learned. The best actors are self-aware. They understand their emotions, what triggers them, etc. When they are playing a character, they will bring forth certain parts of themselves that embody the primary facets of that character. Another thing I have learned is that the best actors always have an objective they are trying to reach. That objective could be something as simple as I need to cross the stage to engage that other character in conversation or something more complex such as my objective is to make the audience feel empathy for my character, who is the villain that just murdered an innocent bystander.
As a leader, both of these attributes are also important. Being more self-aware can allow you to not react to whatever (or whoever) might be pushing your buttons. You know what those buttons are and you can “act” unphased in the moment and respond appropriately. At other times, as the leader you need to project confidence in a crisis situation. Perhaps you are not feeling confident, but your team is not served by seeing you uncertainty in a time of crisis.
It is also important to have an objective you are seeking in your interactions. What are you trying to accomplish with this conversation or meeting? What do you need your team to do to help meet the goals (which could be termed super-objectives) of the company. Then, when you understand your objectives, you make choices in your behavior, your words, your actions, to accomplish those objectives.
My objective with this article, is to spread the word. So if you like it, send it to everyone you know.
My super-objective is to help you become the best leader you can. So if you want to learn more about leaders as performers, hit reply to this email or contact me at the number below.
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