Why the Best Leaders Are the Best Actors

MG Thinkers 50 Blog

November 10, 2014

Every day we all take the stage at work. When you take the stage are people buying your act? And, most of all are you buying your own act?

by Marshall Goldsmith

Let me start with two well-known phrases:

1. “All the world’s a stage” is the phrase that begins a monologue from William Shakespeare’s As You like It.

2. “The show must go on” is a phrase in show business, meaning that regardless of what happens, whatever show has been planned still has to be staged for the waiting patrons.

Until recently, I always had a dilemma regarding the “stage” of business. As an executive educator, who helps successful leaders achieve a positive change in behavior, I, in a way, teach people how to act.

So here’s the dilemma: When is acting being professional? When is acting being phony? I want to help leaders learn how to be great performers, but I never believe that they should be phonies. How can I, as a coach, understand the difference?

And what makes you “buy” your boss’s, colleague’s, subordinate’s, or even a salesperson’s “act?” The answer is we buy someone’s act when they truly love their profession. We are with them when their “act” is part of the fabric of who, and what they are – and we can feel it in our interactions with them.

Let me give you two divergent examples.

First, one of the greatest leaders I know is Frances Hesselbein, the former executive director of the Girl Scouts of America and now chairman of the Leader to Leader Institute. I am not alone in my assessment of her talents. Peter Drucker once noted that she was perhaps the most effective executive he had ever met. As a tribute to her leadership skills, President Clinton awarded Frances with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award that can be given to a U.S. civilian.

I am deeply honored that Frances is also one of my best friends. Like all humans, Frances faces the same problems we all face. She has lived through health problems, tragedies with friends, and family issues. And, like all great professionals, when it is time for Frances to work, she is always there. I have seen her turn down an invitation from the U.S. president because she had already committed to a talk (at no fee) for a non-profit organization in a small town. When she makes a commitment, if it is humanly possible to be there, she delivers. It doesn’t matter that a “better deal” came along later. She not only makes an appearance, she is upbeat and positive, she is inspirational, and she gets the job done.

For Frances, the show must go on, and she takes the stage with love, heart, and passion. She believes in the core of her soul in what she is doing and anyone around her feels it and knows it. Simply put, everyone buys her act – because her act is truly Frances.

My second example is my client Ted, who helped me answer my dilemma question. I worked with him for a year, trying to help him fit in a corporate culture where he really didn’t belong. At the end of the year, I finally said, “Why don’t you leave? You are so miserable that you are starting to depress me!”

He saw the light, left the company, and is now doing something he loves. There was nothing wrong with the company. There was nothing wrong with Ted. He just didn’t belong there. It wasn’t him.

In the case of Ted, when his show had to go on, he was simply going through the motions. When he took the stage, people around him did not truly buy his act – and Ted did not really buy his own act.

I learned through Ted that despite his greatest efforts, he was being phony when he did not love his work. And loving your work is what makes great performers rise to the occasion.

On Broadway – Their Act Is No Act

This is why great Broadway performers are able to pour their hearts into each production. At times they overcome headaches, family problems, and more. Because, the show must go on.

Like great actors, inspirational leaders sometimes need to be consummate performers. When they need to motivate and inspire people, they do it. And we are inspired (or buy their act) because they are 100 percent invested in their work and the cause.

Believe in Your Act

If you are in the right job in the right company, and you are learning how to perform to the best of your ability, you are being a true professional. If you are in the wrong job in the wrong company and you learn to act so that you can better fit in, you are just being a better phony. It still isn’t you out there.

Today, Ted is a lot happier. He spends his time thinking up creative ideas in his new company, and he’s having a ball. He is not only adding value for the company, he is also adding value for the world.

Think about your job. As a professional, is your job consistent with the person you want to be?

If the answer is “yes”, be like Frances Hesselbein. Put on a great show. Be the consummate professional. Learn to keep developing your ability to perform, so you can get even better than you are today. If you love what you do, a great coach might even help you get better.

Every day we all take the stage. And, when you take the stage and the show must go on – are people buying your act? And, most of all are you buying your own act?

If the answer is “no”, change jobs as soon as you can. Why bother to become a better phony? Even if you do get a coach and learn to modify your behavior, it won’t count for much. Why? It won’t really be you.