All the World’s a Stage, and All the Men and Women Executives Merely Players

The acting craft has valuable lessons to impart to toilers in the business world. Helping executives understand what motivates their “characters” and the mannerisms and expressions that would convey their status can expedite the challenging process of developing leaders.

Imagine this: You’ve been asked to lead an important startup and had no time to prepare. With no practice at all, you’re suddenly a CEO, weathering great expectations and intense scrutiny of your every move. 

Or poof! You’re now in charge of leading staff from a purchased company after a merger—people who will know you only by the first impression you make. 

Or you’re asked to present at a board meeting before CEOs and VIPs—and you’d hoped to stay in the audience. 

These scenarios can cause restless nights, and maybe aren’t likely. But confidence and leadership skills will always be useful and welcome, whether you stand at the front of the board room or sit at the back. Getting to where you can influence others, as a role model, a voice of decision, and the possessor of unmistakable leadership DNA—this is a valuable power, not only in business but in life. 

One method I use to help leaders develop these skills comes from an unlikely place. In the late 19thand early 20thcenturies, a visionary actor and dramaturge named Constantin Stanislavsky revolutionized the craft of acting by urging his pupils to build characters from their inner selves outward, until they “owned” their roles entirely. 

He urged students to understand what motivated their characters, and to know the mannerisms and expressions that would convey their status. This was more than just reciting lines. As a former actor myself, I find this “method” to be extremely helpful for my clients, and I have used it to great effect in expediting the challenging process of developing leaders. 

In addition, the acting craft in general has valuable lessons to impart to toilers in the business world. Acting teaches us that it’s not quite enough to do the job well; you also want to appear to be doing so. 

How Is It Done?

Steve and Jessica were starting a cosmetic company. Steve was a creative, 23-year-old entrepreneur; Jessica just received an Accounting degree. Neither had experience running a business or leading a team. I was hired to help them become leaders. 

The first challenge was to build theirexecutive presence,and, thus, establish a level of respect between them and their partners and employees. It had to be done quickly, it had to be done with two very different people. Though both were lively, creative, pleasant, and with a style unique to each, their youth denied them the maturity presence needed for the roles they were to play. 

So we rented a theater. 

We put Steve and Jessica in stage lights, and made them actors for a while. 

I have found that this experience, taking place as it does in mysterious darkness and forming a creative space, can be profound. It can lead not only to accelerated personal growth but, for CEOs, to the highest levels of performance in business. 

In the theater, we focused on defining their personae. I asked them to pick their respective “costumes,” literally taking them to the wardrobe closet and finding clothing suitable to who they would be on stage. Then we “rehearsed” for three sessions. We worked on body language, tone of voice, active listening, exhibiting firmness and compassion—all traits characteristic not just of a CEO, but of a CFO and a client, as well. 

In not too much time, Steve and Jessica were offering great performances. Onstage, they managed the spotlight with panache. They fully utilized their space. They understood and modulated the emotional signals they sent. They heightened awareness and took control of the scene. 

With this exercise, we watched them begin the transition from young and immature leaders—in other words, from being in their comfort zone—to having the remarkable ease in reaching out, communicating, and leading their colleagues that characterizes mature CEOs. 

No matter how often this transition happens before me, I am always delighted and amazed. It is visible, tangible, and real. It is also so reliable that Stanislavsky had a name for it: He called it “The Magic If.” (“If I were the CEO, what would I do in this situation?”) 

The idea is simple. If you look and act like a leader, you’ll be respected as a leader. Often, the appearance of a trait is the first step in acquiring that trait. By looking and acting like a respected CEO, you come closer to being a respected CEO. 

The Whole Ensemble

But acting skills apply beyond the actions of individual players. Stanislavsky’s techniques also serve to improve ensemble performance, in business, as well as theater. 

Hired by the CFO of a large entertainment company, we were charged with strengthening the cohesion of the team surrounding a new CEO. So we set up a scenario. We asked the team to imagine an angry strike at their company featuring ferocious union reps who lock the CEO in her office. We asked them to role-play characters and decide how to rescue her. 

They considered strategies together. They negotiated with workers, designated a representative, and sped the resolution. They performed with surprising unity. Meanwhile, the CEO was prohibited from eating, drinking, communicating, or even opening a window. She had to sit at her desk, facing hostility and bad faith for hours. It was an intense experience for all, but helpful. When it was over, it bound the team in a sphere of ready communication, and created considerable togetherness in the group. 

More broadly still, I find Stanislavsky's acting methods well suited to the art of facilitating business. For proof I have only to include here the seven questions he suggests all actors ask themselves when taking on a role, questions not at all irrelevant to those who perform in business theater: 

  • Who am I? Actors scour a script for clues to a character’s beliefs, history, appearance, motivations, and impressions on others. The information garnered from this practice fills in the blanks left after imagination has done its work. 
  • Where am I? Scripts give the setting, but it’s left to the actor to think how his or her character relates to it, feels about it; also how his or her character changes when the setting shifts, either in place or physical condition. 
  • What time is it? What is the year, season, month, day, and hour? How do these settings influence a character’s behavior? A certain behavior will be more appropriate in Royalty of Versailles and Louis XIV than in the 1960s-era of Woodstock. 
  • What do I want? This question informs all others. A character’s action most vividly ensues from knowing what he wants from other characters in the scene. All actions and stage business proceed from this knowledge. 
  • Why do I want it? If a character has a convincing reason for acting as he or she does, he or she behaves more convincingly, generates greater dramatic tension, and generally invites more attention from the audience. 
  • How will I get what I want? This question informs all nuances of dialogue, tone, and gesture, and tends toward influencing others in the scene toward accomplishing a character’s objective. 
  • What must I overcome to get what I want? This is the real or imagined person, condition, or conflict standing between the character and his or her objective. Characters know it and fight against it in every scene. 

These questions can give an actor hours of work. But the actor who answers inevitably will possess greater understanding of his or her character and a better performance strategy. And as we know, the distance between actor and successful executive is not so far as we might think. 

Executive leadership coach André Politzer, PCC, MBA, is a Professional Certified Coach, consultant, and trainer who offers his clients a blend of creative marketing expertise and business development acumen. He is the managing partner of Majestery Group, an organization that focuses on helping businesses grow and prosper, develop exceptional leadership, and connect with consumers on a new level. Politzer has established a successful track record of coaching and mentoring senior and C-suite executives in corporate America and abroad. With more than 25 years of leadership experience in building business performance and global and niche market strategies, he has coaching experience in emerging technology, news media, telecommunications, entertainment, publishing, finance, travel, and luxury retail. Politzer began his professional career in acting. He attended the Tania Balachova and Jacques Lecoq Drama Schools and performed on stage in France and the UK playing Shakespeare, Ionesco, and Oscar Wilde. He then moved on to build a business career in the hotel industry, earning a diploma in hotel management at the International Institute of Hospitality Management in Glion, Switzerland. He joined the upscale division of THF Hotels—a multinational hotel and hospitality group based in the United Kingdom. Politzer also holds a Bachelor’s degree and an MBA in Economics from Université Paris IX Dauphine (France). His first book will be published in summer 2019 on "Acting on Leadership. For more information, visit www.majestery.com and www.coachingpath.com or e-mail him at andre@majestery.com

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