Finding Yourself: Acting Like a Leader

In my life, I have to play many roles. For most of my casual life, I can play roles that suit the way I typically act–roles that are consistent with the way I usually tell my story, and modes of being that I’m comfortable slipping into. But often in business and in leadership, I have to take on roles I’m less comfortable playing.

When I’m communicating with multiple stakeholders, for example, I have to take on a different role with each one. With IT, I have to be someone who cares about process, rules, requirements, risks, ROI. With the knowledge management team, I’m a person who is concerned with lowering the barriers to documenting and sharing knowledge. With executives, I am someone who cares about strategic initiatives. In each instance I play a different role.

The famed acting teacher Uta Hagen wrote in A Challenge For The Actor about her struggle to “lose herself” in her roles when she first studied acting. The expectation is often that we have to leave ourselves in some room, and assume the posture, the voice, the gestures, and the attitude of an entirely different person. We have to become so engaged in this other person that we forget who we are and transform completely into the fictional role.

I’ve seen it happen often where colleagues felt they had to drop who they were in order to play a particular “role” in a business context. They had to pretend to be leaders, to pretend to be presenters, to pretend to be experts. They had to wear different clothes and censor thoughts and act like they cared about things. And in some cases, they pulled it off. If you’re making a sale, you can pretend for a couple of hours. But if you’re leading a team or an organization, pretending won’t get you very far.

Hagen’s revelation that finally allowed her to act well was that “losing herself” was not just a red herring but an impossible task. We can never abandon ourselves, and even if we could we would be empty, a complete blank without human features or relations. (Perhaps you’ve met such “empty” people–often they are diagnosed with narcissism or sociopathy, and have to work much harder to be authentic if authenticity is something they desire.) Instead of “losing herself,” Hagen realized she had to find herself in the role.

A great actor doesn’t connect with us because of his excellent display of mannerisms and vocalizations. Compare Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean with Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. Each features an acclaimed actor in an over-the-top role. But although Jack Sparrow is entertaining, there is an edge to Priestly that makes us bleed: she is in the end a human being like we are, despite her conniving and condescension.

Any role I assume–a leader, an advisor, a seller, a buyer, a mentor–is not something I can piece together from a set of ideas about what that kind of person should be, stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster and given life by sheer force of will. In order to inhabit each role, I must find the version of myself that is the role I’m assuming–the version that really cares about the same things as his audience, and doesn’t just pretend so that he can manipulate that audience.

To that end, Uta Hagen laid out nine questions to understand a role. Actors would lay these out and understand them in detail, but as a professional, it’s better to work out a way of thinking for different groups of stakeholders.

  1. Who am I? Consider your own background, your strengths and particularly the differences in your perspective that could be valuable to your audience. Your influence begins with truths about who you are–not necessarily the truths you are used to playing, but truths nonetheless.
  2. What time is it? Consider the circumstances in the world: What are the current movements in your audience’s industry and professional field? What are they dealing with on a day to day basis? How does that affect the version of yourself that relates to them? What time of day is it? How does that affect you? How does it affect your audience?
  3. Where am I? Physical context is very important to our psychology. Are you in an executive boardroom? A cubicle? Have you flown in from far away? Has your audience?
  4. What surrounds me? Notice the physical features of the reality around you. These are part of the context of your audience and so they are a part of you as well.
  5. What are the given (immediate) circumstances? What do all the present parties have on their minds? Where has your audience come from just before the present moment, and where are they going afterward? Are people under pressure to meet a deadline? Are they dealing with the fallout of a controversy? Are things slow and a lot of people on vacation? Consider how these things affect your audience and, consequently, your role in relation to them.
  6. What is my relationship? Why do you know these people? Who do they think you are? What kind of influence do you have on them? (You always have some kind of influence–be specific.) What other relationships are important to the situation, e.g., does your audience see you as a protege, representative, or advisor to someone they respect?
  7. What do I want? Remember that this desire is specific to your role: that is, the role that is interacting with this specific audience. You want something in relation to them: either from them, for them, or better yet, with them. If you want too many things, or what you want is not specific, your role will be unclear and your presentation will be confusing.
  8. What is in my way? The obstacles you face will usually relate to your audience, e.g., getting their buy-in. If it isn’t, you are wasting their time and yours. Be specific about these obstacles: Is it a matter of investment level? Risks? Timeline? Priorities?
  9. What do I do to get what I want? These questions are about you and your role. Don’t get ahead of yourself by solving your audience’s problems for them. What are you doing right now that will achieve the goal of the current interaction? How can you alleviate your audience’s concerns and help them see the opportunity you see?

In the end, you aren’t aiming for a deception, but a version of yourself–found in your personal truths–that relates to and operates with your audience. Understanding how you create those roles, and how you can better refine them, is ultimately a process of becoming more authentic in each of those roles. Rather than putting them on like masks, you will become more yourself in each of them, and consequently a better leader in all of them.

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