Acting lessons to be an Authentic Leader - you must be joking!

Authentic leadership from an unexpected source…

Authentic leadership from an unexpected source…

Surely the last thing you need to do to become a more authentic leader is learn how to act. Acting is all about faking it, isn’t it? The exact opposite of authenticity?

Not so.

Since the Twentieth Century and the advent of what is now known as ‘method’ acting, good acting is about living the role authentically. In the words of leadership thinker Rob Goffee, great leadership (just like great acting) is about “Being yourself. More. With Skill.” It is about being authentic to yourself, but also to the role you have to play.

At Dramatic Resources, we see leaders time and again caught in a trap between feeling that they can be themselves or they can be the role. We see this often when it comes to public speaking: executives who are extremely engaging in conversation, step onto a conference stage and stop being true to themselves. They send in their ‘representative’ – a persona that fulfills the role’s expectations – and leave their personality behind. In her Harvard Business Review article The Authenticity Paradox, Herminia Ibarra gives examples of managers who fail to adapt their style enough to face new leadership challenges and suggests,

Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch onto authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what’s comfortable.

Acting – good acting – is all about meeting the demands of the role as yourself. The great pioneers of method acting devised a way to bring the role to yourself and yourself to the role. That is what great leaders have to do. That is what authentic leadership is all about.

So, what does this mean in practice?

Hugh Grant in the role he has played since 1994.

Hugh Grant in the role he has played since 1994.

First, think about what we call your ‘range’. The British actor Hugh Grant famously joked that he had a sinisterly narrow range – he does one thing, but he does that one thing well. For most leaders, that is not enough. As you take on more challenges as a leader, you need to be able to vary your style but remain authentic. Often this means calling on a side of your personality that you haven’t used before at work: maybe a more animated side that you use when telling stories to your children, or the fiercely competitive side you use on the sports field.

Next, think about emotion and vulnerability. When we watch an actor in a role they need to be convincing, so we believe in them. Sure, they need to fit the role: if they are playing a bodyguard – as in the recent hit UK TV series – their physicality and movement should suggest they can handle themselves in a fight. However, the actor also needs to bring their own imagination and emotions to the role so that we, the audience, care about them.

Similarly, your stakeholders and team want to know that you are credible in the role, that you have what it takes in terms of experience and expertise. However they also need to relate to you as a human being. Sharing personal stories, emotions or beliefs might make you feel exposed, but being an authentic leader means connecting with your audience. Just as with great acting, this connection cannot be achieved without taking the risk of appearing vulnerable.

What do you do next? Of course, you could sign up for some acting lessons… But the key thing is practice, or what we in theatre call rehearsal. Think of the different styles you use outside of work that might suit the role, take the risk of telling personal stories and don’t be afraid to show more emotion. These things are not easy to do, but they are vital to be an authentic leader. Don’t wait for the end of year conference. Don’t wait for the next stressful, high pressure moment. Start rehearsing now – and practice in your next meeting.