My transition from theatre director to leadership developer was inspired by a particular workshop I ran with the actor Mark Rylance in the build up to our production of Henry V – which opened the Globe Theatre in 1997. We were wanting to test out how much of this 400 year old play and its assumptions about inspirational leadership (‘Once more unto the breech…’ and all that!) were relevant to a modern audience and modern leaders. So as part of our preparation and extended rehearsal process, we set up a workshop for 12 modern leaders to be taken through the play by Mark and myself and give us their honest reflections. Much to our surprise, at the end of the 2 days they reported that far from the leadership lessons in the play being outdated, they had learnt more about effective leadership from their journey with Henry V than they had from many of the leadership courses they had attended in the last 10 years.
I was fascinated by this effective intersection of a great story, theatrical techniques and leadership lessons and continued my exploration of them for the next 18 months, by which time I had a combination of enough evidence of impact and a growing personal calling in this area to navigate a change of career from which I have never looked back.
Since then my colleagues and I have worked with thousands of managers and leaders from all cultures and sectors to develop their performance skills at work. Our starting premise is that if you are a manager or a leader, you need to be prepared to be the ‘leading actor’ on your ‘stage’ – and that takes reflection, anticipation and rehearsal.
A good performer in theatre knows the part they are hired to play inside out and they investigate what motivates the character to play the role they do in the story they are in. Any good actor knows that simply getting paid is not motivation enough, they have to find the right fit between their own personality (what they bring to the part) and the role requirements (what the part entails) – and their job is to make the best possible marriage between personality and role. So, in our work, we hold that an essential pre-requisite for impactful performance is getting clear on motivation and a sense of purpose; what gets you up in the morning with a smile on your face to go into work. And only a person who genuinely knows what motivates them will ever be able to convincingly motivate others.
Another key performance skill that both excellent actors and excellent leaders learn is ‘authentic performance’. At first this can sound paradoxical – “surely, I am either authentic or acting?” but we argue that effective performers at work do both. They know who they are and what they stand for and know how to show up at different times, in different places to communicate to different audiences, all with the same intended impact. Someone who is ‘only’ authentic, may not feel like showing up on a bad day with a smile on their face, whereas someone who is all performance (and does not value authenticity) will quickly be seen through by the ‘bullshit spotters’ in the crowd.
Perception management is another key difference we have noted between average and excellent performers. In management and leadership, how people see you can be as important as what you actually do. So, effective managers need to develop what we call their ‘Performance Ethic’. A good actor is continually aware of how they are feeling in the moment, how their audience is receiving their input and what to change to improve that impact. This process starts with self-awareness; are you really aware of how you show up and how others receive your energy in a room or in a meeting? (This is very different from “self-consciousness” which many of us suffer from – when you are the centre of attention some part of you feels frozen, like a “rabbit caught in the headlights”.) Although many we have worked with over the years do not have this ability naturally, it can be taught relatively quickly, and once learned it is never forgotten.
Just as a good actor learns their craft, prepares internally and rehearses before performance, we believe that all those seeking to enhance their performance benefit hugely from learning these and other advanced theatre techniques.