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.

Finding Your Motivation: A Lesson from Theater

There’s a taboo in business, that when you’re not motivated you should just fake it. Just get the work done and don’t talk about the fact that you’re not interested in doing it. It’s my opinion that this is a dangerous practice.

When I’m directing an actor, I can give her a thousand individual movements, inflections, background details, and so on. (As a manager, I can give a thousand instructions, contextual details, orientation materials, etc.) But what finally connects with the actor to make something magical is when she realizes what “she” (in her role) wants. Give someone a reason to do something and she will do it well.

The reason (or “motivation”) is individual and specific: it applies to this person performing this action, and not in any other time and place. For the most part, it’s up to the actor to discover these motivations, but a director–a leader–has to be ready to help find them.

Good actors know when their actions aren’t properly motivated. It’s an intuition: I don’t understand what I’m doing in the context of my reasons for doing it. And when a good actor can tell her action isn’t properly motivated, she goes to her director to work it out.

When was the last time one of your people came to you asking why? Why don’t I feel motivated about what I’m doing? There are things we just have to do, but if someone is spending a full day or more working on something he doesn’t see as important, you’re looking at a critical disconnect–a point of feedback that might tell you something important about what you’re doing and whether it will be successful.

I would like to challenge you to spend a trial period focusing on reasons (“motivations”) instead of instructions, particularly with your more experienced people who already know how to do things, but even with newer people who may have to discover or ask you about the how. You may be surprised how connecting your players with motivations to act will lead to better outcomes, even if the instructions you give them are less specific. Instructions keep people in the world of the routine. Motivation puts people on a path to create stories.

And once you’ve positioned your team’s motivations, watch for places where the motivation doesn’t connect: this is a disguise for problems with your assumptions, your division of labor, and other ways you can make improvements.

Motivating by Story: A Lesson from Theater

When you go to see a play, you may sit down with some assumptions about the people you see on stage. Among them may be an assumption that all those people want to be there.

A stage or a film set isn’t substantively different from the environment on a work team–the egos may be a little bigger, but if you’ve spent any time leading people, you’ve probably seen some big egos already.

One of the difficulties you might not expect lies in getting the cast on the same page. A director’s ability to interpret a script (which is tantamount to meeting the requirements of a project) depends on each actor individually working with that interpretation.

The irony is that for everyone to be on the same page, everyone has to be on a different page. Having a big-picture understanding of Hamlet finding out about and then exacting revenge for the murder of his father is a great perspective to have, but it’s not necessarily the story each actor is playing. Each person in the cast has to have a unique story in order to effectively and convincingly fulfill his duties.

To Laertes, Hamlet is a story about revenge–against his sister’s boyfriend for driving her to insanity and suicide. To Claudius, it’s a story about the ambition of a man who wouldn’t accept the cards dealt to him and worked to improve his station.

Similarly, one of the most important motivators in a team is not to see the big picture, but to see the small one–to see my story. It’s too easy to clock in and check out when I see what I’m doing as serving someone else’s story, and I’m just selling a bit of my life for a paycheck. To live fully within the work I’m doing, I have to understand: what am I doing right now to live my values?

Do you know the stories your people are telling? Do you know not only their value, but their values? Every level of organization has separate values: a nation, a business, a team, an individual. If you know their values, it will be easy to help them see their own stories in the larger story you’re telling together.

“Sure,” you might say, “I can show a key player how his individual story weaves into the big picture. But there are some people–interns, new hires, people from other departments or other companies–who tend to see their roles as small and interchangeable. And they are,” you may even say, “because they don’t have the specialization or depth of involvement to create unique value.”

There are two roles in Hamlet that are so famously insignificant and interchangeable that Tom Stoppard wrote a play about how insignificant and interchangeable they are: Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

These two characters have no distinguishing features and serve only to move the plot forward. The actors could easily clock in and check out. But a good director doesn’t ignore even the smallest part, particularly if she already has star players locking down the major roles. The flavor of the end product can be disproportionately affected by these seemingly insignificant roles.

Ultimately it comes down to the same objective: Even these small, interchangeable players have to see what they do as the integral, project-defining work that it is. Losing even the least significant roles confuses and degrades the end product.

Could you have a successful product without it? Of course–it happens all the time. I’ve seen successful projects with much more significant roles that were poorly executed. But attention to the least of your team members, and the ability to integrate their stories seamlessly into the final product, is what separates a passable director from a great leader. Learning the individual stories of each of your players, and weaving each of them into the whole, can take a project that is unlikely to even be finished and turn it into an incredible success.