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The world’s best leaders are cast as themselves in a play that never ends

When Hillary Clinton welled up in response to an innocuous question about how she keeps so upbeat on the presidential campaign trail in 2008, people took notice. To the surprise of pollsters, she won the…

He might not be faking it - but he is acting. Obama for America, CC BY-NC-SA

When Hillary Clinton welled up in response to an innocuous question about how she keeps so upbeat on the presidential campaign trail in 2008, people took notice. To the surprise of pollsters, she won the primary in question – New Hampshire – despite trailing her opponent Barack Obama before the tears.

A display of weaknesses such as this is one of the most fundamental qualities of inspirational leadership. Expressing sincere vulnerability allows leaders to communicate their humanity and accessibility, and it seems the people of New Hampshire were swayed.

Such communication is also at the heart of acting. The best actors inhabit their roles to the point where the boundaries between character and reality blur and they are no longer “faking it”. Hillary wasn’t faking it either – no doubt she really does find the stresses of the campaign trail a lot to deal with, and the unusual question threw her off balance. She wasn’t lying; but she was acting.

So what can leaders – politicians, CEOs or even headteachers – learn from actors?

What Warren saw

Warren Bennis, who died recently at age 89, thought about this question more than anyone. Bennis was considered the father of leadership studies and his thinking focused on the premise that leadership is not an innate quality, but rather a set of skills that can be developed. He also made a clear distinction between management and leadership, arguing that the role of the manager is “to plan, organise and coordinate,” whereas the role of the leader is “to inspire and motivate”.

One of Bennis’ ideas which has been largely overlooked in leadership studies is the connection he established between leadership and acting. Bennis argued that leaders, like actors, have to perform a role in order to inspire others. They have to engage followers by creating shared meaning. “Hitler is a ghastly example of this ability, and a reminder of the under-appreciated role that rhetoric and performance play in leadership,” Bennis once noted.

For Bennis, as for many other leadership thinkers, inspiration is at the core of the leadership process. The inspirational element is what makes leadership and acting quite similar. The actor inspires an audience in the same way the leader inspires followers. According to Bennis, “like great actors, great leaders create and sell an alternative vision of the world, a better one in which we are an essential part.”

The truth within

The paradox of acting is that actors portray fictional characters, but must find the truth of their characters within themselves. It is not about faking being someone, but rather about being someone truthfully. Actors draw on their own lives to produce authentic performances, finding characteristics and experiences in themselves that can be related to the realities of their characters.

A future president looks forward to his next role. Ronald Reagan Library

Leaders, like actors, must strive to find themselves truthfully in their leadership roles. Self-awareness and authenticity become critical in the leadership process. Leaders must look for values and beliefs in their own lives that correspond to the leadership situation in which they find themselves. They should make their values and beliefs explicit in order to share them with their followers. The authenticity related to sharing their own values and beliefs will inspire their followers the same way actors’ authentic performances inspire audiences.

Authentic emotions

The morning after President Obama was re-elected in 2012, he gave a short but emotive speech at his Chicago headquarters, thanking his young volunteers for their hard work. After recalling how much he had matured as a community organiser in Chicago when he was younger, and how much the young supporters reminded him of himself, his voice cracked and he started shedding tears. This emotional moment was followed by a loud ovation from his young followers. It was the expression of authentic emotions which made Obama’s brief speech compelling and inspirational.

Skip to 3:25 if you’ve heard the life story before.

Acting training generally consists of developing internal and external elements. Actors spend hours working on their own memories, senses, and emotions to be able to produce authentic performances. They train their bodies, and work on their breathing, movements, voice, and speech to improve their stage presence. This combination of internal and external elements, of authenticity and presence, makes their performances inspirational.

Like actors, leaders must learn how to strike the right balance between presence and authenticity. Leadership development, like acting training, should focus on developing both internal and external qualities that will allow leaders to inspire and motivate followers. The benefits of acting training in leadership development are based on the premise that acting and leadership can be seen as two sides of the same coin. As Bennis once noted, “they are unavoidably yoked together, these two, by a common social purpose: the creation of mutuality, of transforming feeling into shared meaning.”