What (Good) Leaders Can Learn from Actors

I recently had the pleasure of listening to Tzachi Zamir speak at a Spark Dinner hosted by the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership at Booth. Tzachi is the inaugural visiting scholar and a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In his talk, he discussed the performance related aspects of leadership and the need for leaders to hone the characters they bring on stage.

While listening to Tzachi speak, I was reminded of Professor Harry Davis’s lectures in my Business Policy course. We discussed the notion that many leaders, when put into new positions that require a different version of themselves, start feeling inauthentic. For instance, while being an analyst might require one to be a good team-player and data-cruncher, becoming a manager might need them to be a good public-speaker and delegator. This shift leads many people to grapple with being true to themselves while also being the leader their constituency needs them to be. Professor Davis reframed this problem by suggesting that perhaps we all have different characters we put on the stage of our lives and the version of ourselves we put forward in one situation is completely different than the character we publicize to others. Professor Zamir called upon a similar notion in his talk when he discussed the difference between acting/roleplaying and pretending/lying. While acting or roleplaying are often viewed as lying, in reality these do not need to be deviations from the truth and instead are goal-oriented activities that require us to “be in another way.” That is, when it comes time for us to act in a new way to be successful in our leadership roles, we do not need to view it as being fake or pretending, but rather think of it working on a new character that is just a different version of who we are.

Not only do actors and leaders need to take on new roles, but they also have to maintain variety and freshness within those roles. An actor may perform the same scene on stage dozens of times, and the truly talented actors are able to create the same level of emotion and drama each and every time. Like actors, leaders can keep things fresh by thinking of moments where they have been a good leader, as observed by themselves or others, and thinking of what they can do to make those moments more likely. Acting is the ability to freshly relive known content and similarly good leadership is resisting the temptation to withdraw into an operational mode and instead think about the variety you can introduce within a known context.

This concept really came to life for me when we were split off into pairs to act out a scene from King Lear. We practiced the scene many times in different contexts: with and without a script, looking and not looking at our partner, and with and without passion while saying our lines. Through this exercise we experienced the variables that go into acting and how those influence the quality of the scene and our experience. My main takeaway from this was the parallel to the number of variables that are present in a professional setting as well, ranging from your mood on a given day to the moods of the people around you. Professor Zamir showed us the power of harnessing those factors, which showed me the necessity of paying attention to the same factors in professional and leadership settings in order to embody my values while playing the role I need to play.

Through this talk as well as the many leadership development activities I have participated in at Booth I have found a common theme—good leadership requires practice. As Professor Zamir said, “You can wake up and become a manager, but you cannot wake up and become a leader.” We often forget the hours of hard-work, rehearsing and fine-tuning that goes into creating the characters we see come alive while watching an actor or actress perform on stage, the same is true for the leaders we encounter as well.

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