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.

How to Value Your Diversity

Equal pay for women is a checkmate strategy.

There are two possible schools of thought when it comes to equal pay. One is that women are the same as men; the other is that women are different from men.

If women are the same as men, then they deserve equal pay. This is easy to understand: If women are the same as men with regard to their work, then if business is a meritocracy they deserve to be making the same amount for the same work.

I’m of the camp that women and men are statistically different. (By which I mean you can’t narrow down from the generality to say any one woman is a certain way compared to any one man, but on average women tend toward certain traits and men toward others.) Whether this difference is primarily the product of cultural expectations is irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

That women are different and therefore deserve equal pay goes back to my discussion of diversity and innovation. Innovation is recombinant, meaning it requires a diversity of perspectives, values, and opinions that can be synthesized and resolved in new ways, sometimes resulting in entirely new ideas. If women are different from men, this contributes value to the innovation process.

But there’s a problem with unequal pay and the relative value of the individual’s contribution. By setting one person’s pay lower than a peer, you are also setting the relative value of that person’s contribution.

This sounds counter-intuitive to anyone brought up on supply-and-demand economics, which say you’re paying less for the same resource. Yet we’ve seen time and again that the amount you pay for something changes its practical value. If you paid a hundred dollars a month to read my blog posts, even if the product wasn’t substantively changed, you’d be taking these words a lot more seriously. This blog would, in effect, become a different product in your mind.

The same behavior is at play in your employment, even where the actual amounts you’re paying each employee are hidden from each other. The behavior is subtle: management values this person’s views more than another’s; or a particular employee is bolder because he knows he is being paid on the upper end of his market range. Meanwhile, people who are being paid less than their contribution is worth may be holding back. Why should I be investing more in my employers than they’re investing in me?

Thus, by paying an employee less, you are actually making her contribution less valuable.

Thus it isn’t a matter of paying women equally, but valuing women equally. Women who move forward with the knowledge that they are paid equally, and men who encounter women with the knowledge that they are paid equally, will both value the contributions of those women more. And because these contributions add a diversity of perspective–and those perspectives are valued at the same level as their male peers–they contribute value to the end product.

Thus, equal pay is simply logical from a business standpoint. The same rationale applies to equal pay for people of other cultures, subcultures, or anyone who enters a business environment with a new perspective. Short-changing a perspective leaves it anemic; and starving an investment, like your investment in an employee, is bad business.

Writing Your Founding Myth

Yesterday we examined the existing story of your organization. Today we’re going to explore how we can nudge that story into place to create a founding myth–the story that underlies the identity of any company, nation, team, or collective.

As much as Americans may disagree about the particulars, most of us have a shared respect for our founders and place emphasis on the values of liberty and equality. Today, this story includes the long fight to end slavery and grant equal rights to minorities. This is our founding myth: a particular telling of our history, with emphasis on the values that form our identity and the heroes who championed those values.

A large chunk of the Hebrew Bible contains what could be called Davidic mythology: from foretelling David’s kingship long before his birth, to calling upon his bloodline well after his death. The patron, YHWH, brought the people out of Egypt and into a new land, established the identity and values of the culture, and provided a model and hero in the form of King David. This myth sustained the identity of Israel and the Jewish people through multiple exiles, through Greek and then Roman occupations.

As you can tell from my short telling of these two stories, founding myths have important characteristics that help to shape a community:

  1. Shared origins. Your shared origins might stretch back to the founding of the organization, particularly if it was founded last week or last year. Or it might only stretch back to a particular turn in the organization’s history. I began working at KPMG in 2005, shortly after a tax-shelter scandal that resulted in a deferred prosecution agreement with the government. The narrative at the time hinged on that event: we were going to become the firm with the most integrity and the highest-quality work. Sure, we could have traced our origins to the 1800s and the four partners that make up the letters of the name, but that wasn’t the story we were telling; that wasn’t the firm we were trying to be. Our story was of a new beginning, of a murky past and a better future.
  2. Shared values. It’s no coincidence that the greatest philosophers, scholars, and scientists of ancient Greece lived and worked in Athens, the city of Athena. Out of all possible patron gods, its founders chose the goddess of wisdom–not the god of war to have a powerful military, the goddess of fertility to have abundant farmland, or the god of the forge to have unparalleled industry. The story of Athens defined the city’s key value, and elevated that value above many other perfectly good values. If you lead an organization, I urge you to pick one value above all others that is of special importance to this group of people. Then make sure it is embodied in your founding myth.
  3. Shared destiny. It’s never enough to simply share a past. In order to build a community, people have to believe in a shared future that follows from that past. Your shared destiny is the natural result of the values that call you out of your origins; the message is that all that is needed for you to go from where you were to this bright future is to embody your values. Often this destiny is something you know can be achieved because in your founding myth it has been achieved before: George Washington’s presidency, David’s kingship, Steve Jobs’ release of the iPhone. But if your organization is too new to have past successes, or if you’re overseeing a major shift in culture and values, focus on the promise of the future you are trying to achieve.

Through all of these, the operative word is “shared.” You can’t dictate a new future from on high; it has to be something that each person in your organization can believe, a destiny and a set of values that each individual wants to execute. Be aware that this may also be a way to cull your membership; those who aren’t interested in being a part of your shared story may not belong in your community.

Of course, the one thing this story is missing is a character. The character is a champion. The story isn’t about the champion–not really–but the champion breathes life into the ideas. She emerges from the shared past (like everyone else), embodies the shared values (like everyone can), and creates a shared destiny (by virtue of her embodiment of those values).

George Washington was a simple land owner who embodied the values of liberty and equality, led the military forces of rebellion, and eventually became the first President of the United States. David was a humble shepherd who embodied the values of piety and wisdom, overcame both the Philistines and the forces of Saul, and became the first in a long line of kings. Neither of these men were perfect even in the myths–in fact, being an ordinary, flawed human being is important. But because they embodied the shared values, they brought about a bright destiny for all their people.

You might in fact be the champion of your organization’s founding myth, like Jack Welch was at GE. But the myth isn’t about you, it’s about the collective identity.

Once you’ve laid out what you want your founding myth to be, you will need people to buy into it. But recognize that your founding myth is what the people in your organization believe it is. It’s the story they tell, not the story you tell. The closer your myth is to the story people are already telling, the better you will be able to convince them. But remain open to the possibility that your story will need to go through several revisions before everyone’s on the same page.

Discovering Your Current Story

It’s imprudent to write a completely new story for your organization without first discovering what your current story is.

“Wait,” you say. “My organization already has a story?”

Yes, O dear reader! Everyone in your organization, whether it’s two people or twenty thousand, is telling a story about it.

I’m not going to get into methodology. You could survey the members of your organization, you could bring them in and ask them, you could start a discussion thread. You might ask your clients or customers, or you might keep it within your business. But the questions you will need to answer are generally the same.

  1. What do people believe are the most important values of my organization? (Not just the words in our on-boarding materials, but the values they are expected to play out on a daily basis in every interaction.)
  2. What does my org value that distinguishes it from any similar organization? Why does it hold that value as important?
  3. Do my org’s people know why and how they are expected to embody those values? Can they tell the story of a hero or champion of my org’s values?
  4. Where do my org’s people expect the company to be in five or ten years? How does that image reflect the distinguishing values of my org?
  5. What role do they see themselves playing in the evolution of the org?
  6. Where do my people expect to be in five to ten years? What does that say about their individual values?
  7. What role do they see the org playing in their personal evolution?

At its core, these questions seek to get to the “why” of your organization and identify the story your people are telling themselves about it.

Once you have answered these questions, start to piece together the puzzle:

  • Where do my people believe my organization is coming from? In other words, what is the relevant historical context?
  • What values are calling my organization toward a different future? How are those values shaping the organization as it is today? (Remember values don’t always have positive effects–cost-efficiency may result in fear and territorialism, while innovativeness may result in inefficiency. What are the benefits and the costs, not just to the organization as a whole but to my people?)
  • Who is the champion of these values, the example my people think of when they are trying to decide how to execute the values of the organization?
  • What kind of future is this leading us into? Is the path leading upward, downward, or on the same level? What specifics can I glean about the future my people are working toward?

With these elements in place, you will have the most basic outline of your founding myth. The next step will be to reforge that myth into something better.