Observations on leadership and success from Inside the Actors Studio

February 22, 2013 by Joshua
in Art, Blog, Leadership

I’ve watched a lot of episodes of Inside the Actors Studio. I’ve referred to it before and I’ll keep referring to it as a resource for leadership because actors and leaders share this common element to their craft: part of our jobs is to recognize and manage emotions in ourselves to communicate them and create and inspire emotions in others.

Actors tend to inspire laughter, tears, and catharsis whereas leaders tend to inspire motivation, dedication, and action, but those are just different ranges of emotions. Both crafts inspire emotions in others through identifying and creating emotions in ourselves.

That common part of our crafts means the training of both crafts requires developing emotional intelligence and self-awareness. The field of acting makes that requirement obvious to everyone who trains for it. I expect most effective leaders realize our craft requires developing emotional intelligence and self-awareness, but I don’t think all institutions or people who teach it convey its importance.

Few other fields have this foundation, though other performing arts, some other arts, and sales come to mind for starters.

Since so many people don’t realize the emotional demands of leadership, many with the potential to become great leaders don’t realize that potential. One of my main goals on this page is to underscore that foundation and give tools to build it. My seminar teaches it.

Unlike, say, psychology, which also focuses on emotions but academically — that is, not your own emotions — leaders and actors have to practice working with their emotions and those of others, not just know about them abstractly. Practicing emotions rather than just learning about them means you open yourself up to feeling emotional punishment, which can hurt like few other areas in professional life.

Anyway, back to Inside the Actors Studio, I wanted to note some consistent themes I see in the interviewees. First, I should mention since I watch them YouTube and start with the most famous people, the episodes I watch feature only the hugest actors (and directors and producers) — Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Steven Spielberg, Denzel Washington, Sylvester Stallone, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Johnny Depp, etc. The lesser-known ones are still huge, like Charlize Theron, Danny DeVito, Morgan Freeman, Conan O’Brien, and Dave Chappelle.

Here are some common themes (not all apply to each person)

Poverty: surprisingly many of these huge stars went through periods of material destitution. They slept on friend’s floors, cots in the theater, and in cars. Even before their success began they must have had competence to get jobs that paid better than struggling in acting, but they kept with it.

Broken families or family tragedy: this trend is common enough that the host, James Lipton, makes a point of asking about it. Many of these stars grew up in single-parent households. Lipton asks how this aspect of their childhood affected them and they say how they used it to help develop themselves.

Letting go of their safety nets: many of them turned down offers of comfort or security to stick to their craft and dreams. Studios offered Stallone tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of dollars for the script to Rocky with the lead going to huge stars when he had been struggling to survive for seven years. Who wouldn’t want to sell a script to be played by Robert Redford (I forget who they said was going to play the lead) and get paid a decade’s salary? He didn’t and we know the success he reached.

Short men: our society values height, especially in men. Yet many of these men who achieved unparalleled success in a field that values appearance are short — Tom Cruise and Al Pacino are famously short. Danny DeVito is one of the most successful men inside Hollywood, or outside, for that matter. He’s not that attractive either.

Academic mediocrity or worse: realizing these stars’ poor academic performance changed my view on academia a lot and led me to question and change values I held most of my life. I felt doing well in school and learning was essential for success. Now I don’t feel that way so much. So much exists outside of school that academia doesn’t recognize. I’m aware of almost no academic environments or institutions that value or teach emotional intelligence and self-awareness, to their discredit, in my opinion. In fact, “plays well with others” is an inside joke for “doesn’t do well in school,” yet is fundamental to leadership and acting. Anyway, many of these great stars dropped out of school, were kicked out, rebelled, and otherwise got little from academia or probably succeeded despite school getting in their ways.

Physical challenges: I guess here I’m thinking of Stallone again, since I just watched the episode. Doctors accidentally cut a nerve when he was born that led to paralyzing part of his face and changing his voice. How many of us would have pushed so hard to make it in a field where beauty and attractiveness are so important? Francis Ford Coppola had polio as a child that paralyzed his arm and kept him from walking.

I recommend watching the show to learn about one field’s approach to emotional intelligence and self-awareness.

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1 response to “Observations on leadership and success from Inside the Actors Studio

  1. Pingback: More on leadership and success from Inside the Actors Studio: what anyone overcame, you can too » Joshua Spodek

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