Since posting on lessons leaders can learn from method acting, I’ve been thinking about parallels between acting and leadership — in particular how acting changed when Constantine Stanislovski led changing the art to expressive and internal from impressive and external. “Impressive and external” means the actor tried to impress the audience with outward showiness. “Expressive and internal” means the actor tries to find emotions inside and express them.
You know what acting before looked like. Jon Lovitz and John Lithgow mocked that style on Saturday Night Live in its Master Thespian sketches in the late 80s (this transcript of a sketch made me laugh after all these years). I haven’t studied the history of acting, but I think the comedy sketch gets some of the main points right — they were showy, ostentatious, and cared more about appearing as grand actors than about serving the role.
I think today we find emotional expression — the more genuine seeming the better — more compelling than outward showiness. Needless to say, it’s more humble, thoughtful, evocative, and immersive.
Leadership problems today
The society I live in has big problems with its leadership. With hardly a moment’s thought I can rattle off some earth-shaking ones: invading countries for reasons contrary to the national interest and lies, CEO’s making hundreds times more than rank and file employees, factory farming, the decline of the U.S. auto industry, Enron, Worldcom, Tyco, other corporate scandals, the revolving door between industry and government, corporate welfare, high-profit cures instead of prevention for preventable diseases, corporate agriculture subsidies, … these things are parts of their own systems with many causes and effects, but all involve failures of leadership (how failures of leadership contributed to each I leave as an exercise for the reader).
When you think of the leadership relating to any of these issues — the U.S. invading Iraq, CEO pay, Enron, etc — do you think of leaders characterized by humility, self-awareness, and thoughtfulness? Or maybe more about showiness, ostentation, and appearing as grand CEOs and Presidents more than serving their needs of the organizations they lead?
Could leadership be ripe for a change like acting went through, from ostentation and self-importance to understanding and thoughtfulness?
Leadership supply and demand
In a labor market, we get what leaders supply and demand produce. High demand and low supply mean would mean we don’t have much choice and have to pay a lot for what we get.
Well, what supply do we have? The cultures of many fields make wanting a leadership position in them, with the required self-aggrandizement and influence-peddling to achieve it, evidence of being unfit to lead. Politics, corporate business, and many high-profile fields attract and promote leaders who think like actors before Stanislovski, Strasberg, Adler, etc.
You get the idea.
Such barriers to entry lower supply (increasing pay) and select for showy, self-important leaders.
Acting as a profession
Let’s look at acting as a profession to compare it with leadership.
Outside a small fraction of superstars, acting looks brutal as a profession. As a New Yorker, I expect most waiters and bartenders to be actors, meaning acting doesn’t support you on its own. Whatever their star-filled dreams, I doubt many go into the field expecting financial success. The number of professional waiters who once acted tells me the field is over-supplied, therefore keeping compensation low.
Yet people go into acting, generation after generation. I see one over-arching reason for it — they love it! Not everyone will love it, but those who do, love it passionately. I’ve barely been on stage, but when I have… man, I loved it! (my comedy script, storytelling on stage, more storytelling on stage) I presume people who go into acting love it more.
Learning to act is harrowing and gut-wrenching, from what I hear, but incredibly rewarding (which even I experienced). There are many acting schools and few barriers to enter, contributing to the supply. So actors don’t make much money, but the ones who stay love it (I hope), and the rest of us get to enjoy amazing acting.
Leadership as a profession
Like the actors I know, people I know who lead well love leadership. It’s also harrowing and gut-wrenching for similar but different reasons.
So if people love it, why doesn’t leadership have the oversupply that acting does?
For one thing, leadership schools don’t exist in numbers like acting schools do. You can formally learn leadership from only a few places, like business schools, military academies, books, corporate training, coaches, and a few other programs. So people who want leadership roles tend to enter through functional roles in their fields and move up the ranks. More people probably move up the ladder not to lead, specifically, but for more money and status. They just end up leading when they reach that rank.
Leaders need experience, but I wouldn’t expect the route of rising through the ranks to prepare people well for leadership. It doesn’t automatically teach the social skills, self-awareness, and self-management great leadership requires. And it selects people who want the positions for money or status.
Note those sources of leadership training don’t focus on leadership and leadership only. Business schools make you learn finance, marketing, banking, etc. Military schools make you learn war. Books don’t provide community. Corporate training only helps people in those corporations. Coaches cost a lot and don’t scale.
For another thing, many fields have that barrier to entry that wanting to do it makes you unfit to serve. So many would-be-capable leaders don’t attempt to lead and many self-serving people do.
I think those two reasons explain a lot. Leadership hasn’t long been seen, if ever, as a field of its own.
Consider a school that taught leadership and leadership only — like the leadership part of an MBA without the banking, finance, and other corporate stuff, but adding in things like diction, rhetoric, and a few other things. Set aside for the moment how the school would come to exist. Entrepreneurs figure those things out. Let’s thing about a world where it already existed. Would it sustain itself?
My business school experience combined with programs I took afterward tell me a leadership-only curriculum would be rewarding at the time and valuable afterward, meaning people would enjoy doing it, maybe like learning acting. Instead of looking for acting gigs afterward, they’d look for leadership gigs, or maybe start companies, non-profits, community initiatives, etc.
The result? A bigger supply of people with great leadership skills. In this world organizations looking to fill leadership positions could look for candidates not just from within their industries. They could look at people with broad leadership skills — in particular, people who learned their skills out of passion, dedication, and service to their roles rather than self-aggrandizement and just moving up the ranks for money and status.
Would it create a world whereÂ serious people as devoted to humble, effective, experienced leadership as actors are to their craft, living rich, rewarding lives despite not being paid three-hundred times their coworkers would price self-interested, self-aggrandizing would-be leaders like Lovitz and Lithgow’s Saturday Night Live buffoons out of the market? I could see that.
Could it be that all that is missing from creating that world is a school of leadership? A school requiring less of a time commitment than a business school yet providing more skills appropriate to more fields? Of course starting such and institution would be challenging, but every successful school today had to start once too.
If this idea sounds interesting to you, please contact me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Everyone else, stay tuned for follow-up posts in this area.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees