Yesterday I spent the morning with the RSC, helping the Company explore themes of power and leadership in Measure for Measure. I took The Great Brain with me, in a comedy Dr Poole BOGOF manoeuvre, who charmed them with showers of Shakespeare while I brought up the rear with Machiavelli et al.
I’ve been working with actors a lot recently, and yesterday served to remind me how much we still have to learn from them about leadership. Leading as acting has become rather old hat, discredited as further evidence of a cynical willingness to aid and abet a lack of integrity in the workplace. But I think there are four key lessons we still need to learn from them.
First, understudies. Few theatres would risk putting on a play without ensuring that the leads have understudies. Many companies include the understudy cast in the performance schedule, so they know that they need to be ready not just in theory but also in practice. Why are organisations so bad at formalising succession in this way? Is it just to make the ‘stars’ feel more irreplaceable so they can negotiate up their pay packets?
Second, detachment. Actors have to adopt the physical dress and mannerisms of the part they play so that the audience will believe their performance. In doing so, they have to confront that reality of human communication that perception is more powerful than reality. Why do so many leaders hope that no-one will notice their inconsistent behaviour, or imagine that their followers have the time and inclination to read their minds? Rather than assuming that attending to appearance is narcissism or manipulation, maybe we should get over ourselves and pay more attention to staging, costume, and special effects.
Third, improv. The more we learn about the brain, the more we know that feeling resourced is the key to successful cognitive functioning under pressure. And improvisation trains you into the idea that even if you forget your lines you can still deliver a compelling performance, if you stay positive and accept help.
Finally, and most importantly, empathy. An actor can’t afford to make too many premature judgements about their character if they hope to play them in a compelling and believable way, so they have to figure out why, for this person, does their behaviour make sense? This assumption, that we are all reasonable in our own minds, would stop us writing people off until we really have walked a block or two in their shoes.
I could add a fifth lesson. I have been incredibly struck by how open to learning actors are. Would that the jaundiced senior leader was as hungry for experiences that might enhance their performance.