The Lessons Leaders Can Learn From the Theatre

public speaker

In an intriguing example of life imitating art and vice versa, Volodymyr Zelensky once played a character who became president of Ukraine after his video about corruption in the country went viral. Another little-known fact about the now real-life President is that he voiced Paddington Bear for the Ukrainian version of the hit 2014 film and its 2017 sequel. And in a 2016 comedy routine, Zelensky and fellow actors appeared to play the piano with their pants down.  This prompted journalist Amy Spiri to tweet: “Who among us has not played ‘Have Nagila’ on a piano with their genitals on stage and then gone on to lead their country against a foreign invasion?”

It's indeed a bizarre juxtaposition, but one that perhaps highlights the relevance of an actor’s performance skills to success as a leader. So what is it that has saved Zelensky, now one of the world’s most talked about political leaders, from being caught with his pants down?

There are many instances of actors switching into politics. This may seem unusual –  until one considers the common ground between the skills and techniques used by professional actors and those that make for a successful career as a leader or politician. These range from an ability to speak confidently in public to conveying an emotional truth and making an audience believe in and care about the character they are playing. 

So Why Don’t Actors Rule the World?

Just because you’re a successful actor, though, doesn’t automatically guarantee success as a leader or politician!

It may seem counter-intuitive, but most actors are introverts. Their energy source is from within, so they are self-sufficient and comfortable when they’re cut off, out there, in front of an audience (unlike an extrovert, who relies largely on their energy on interaction and so can find this exposed place difficult).  And because their natural orientation is inwards, introverts also tend to have a rich ‘inscape’, which they draw on when interpreting a part. 

Good actors use themselves to inform the character they are playing, while lesser actors tend to hide behind method and technique. Michael Sheen (Good Omens, Caligula, The Twilight Saga) puts it succinctly: ‘Ultimately I am just playing myself in different circumstances. So I look for what I might have in common with the character and then take that part of myself and just make it bigger.’  

To an extent, actors are playing themselves – but it’s them through someone else's filter. They have to share a heightened version of bits of themselves.  This can be a massively exposing process, so having a role, a character, to hide behind, to shield them, is vital. While they’re comfortable playing a part, they’re often not happy being truly themselves in a public arena. That’s not great when dealing with the relentless exposure typical of most high-level leadership positions.  What is it then that makes their skills relevant to non-actors, and what can people in leadership positions learn from the psychology, awareness and techniques of professional theatre in order to increase their presence, impact and level of influence?

Why Personal Disclosure is Priceless

The process of good acting is, fundamentally, one of personal disclosure. The actor uses genuine qualities of their character to inform the part they are playing.  This makes their character believable and allows the audience to identify with them, care about them, and be moved by them.

Personal disclosure in real life – when someone taps into an inner truth that is authentically them; when they perform themselves, in other words – is a massively powerful communication technique.  It has now become widely recognised as an essential part of the toolkit of a successful leader. 

This is because, as a way of connecting with people, the power and impact of personal disclosure are better than anything in the world. As a leader, politician or public figure, you need to show and share your humanity and humility in order for your listeners to relate to you from the imperfect human level we all inhabit. You must draw on your own ‘inscape’ and, crucially, on shared human experience. This makes you simultaneously both special and real –a listener will learn something from you and relate to you at the same time (in fact, we learn precisely because we relate). You give us, your listener, permission to be ourselves. Think of Prince Harry sharing with the world his mental stress about the death of his mother or Michelle Obama saying goodbye to her followers. Or think of someone you know who has moved you to tears or made you laugh with stories of the adversity they’ve faced. The specific experience is their own, but the idea of saying goodbye or dealing with grief is understandable to us all.

As an audience, hearing a speaker’s humanity in their personal disclosure is how we really understand a message, take it on board for ourselves and relate to it. We feel we’re on the same level as the other person, connected with them, and that they’re not somehow beyond the reach of us mere mortals (this is why many TED talks are so powerful). 

Many people find this hard because they think, ‘Oh if I disclose personal things, aren’t I just going to look weak? Aren’t I going to be vulnerable, feel exposed?’

Of course personal disclosure shows vulnerability. But only in the same way that a high-wire act does. When done confidently – and this is key – personal disclosure embodies the same paradox as ‘only really strong people express themselves gently’ and ‘only masters make complexity simple’.

Is a Theatre Background the Key to Being a Successful Leader?

The relevance of professional acting skills to leadership positions is widely evidenced by the sheer number of actors who have become successful political figures, to the very highest levels, from the Philippines to Ukraine, the UK and the US. Clearly, professional actors have the training, experience and skill to convey themselves as they wish to be perceived

Successful Leaders with an Acting Background

Here are a few examples of acting careers mapping onto huge success in the political arena…

Volodymyr Zelenskyy

A current world leader who has gained a huge profile over recent months is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.  The extent to which he draws on his acting background now in his pivotal ‘real-life’ role, and his awareness of the power of theatrical techniques to move and influence people, were highlighted in the telecast speech he made to the UK Parliament early on in the Russian invasion with its Shakespearean reference (“To be or not to be”) and echo of Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger served as the thirty-eighth governor of California from 2003 to 2011. Until his run as a statesman, he was widely known as the bodybuilder-turned-Hollywood movie star. Famous for his action roles, the grit and determination of the characters he played certainly contributed to his commanding presence off the screen. So he was successful when he ran for governor, to many people’s surprise. People often wondered why or how he won the vote. Schwarzenegger himself puts it down to people’s dislike and lack of trust in politicians. But it also has a lot to do with the fact that he was just performing himself for much of his acting career. He was “just being Arnold", which perfectly mapped onto a compelling political persona.  In the words of Mark Baldassare, president of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California: “As a state, we are drawn to personalities who, like him, speak with clarity about what they stand for and who they are — and have a sense of humor about it.”

His experience as an actor gave him the skills to effectively communicate with the people of California and get them hopeful about a reformation. He was able to convey his plans for the state’s future so that people voted for him over 135 other potential candidates. He used his popularity to his advantage, referencing famous one-liners from his movies to create familiarity and produce an emotive response. 

Ronald Reagan

Like Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan was an actor-turned-politician when he became the governor of California in 1967 for eight years. He was the first of his kind, and his unprecedented success was down to his gift as the “Great Communicator”. Reagan was sworn in as the fortieth president of the United States in 1981. Today he is lauded by many Americans for his discourse and how he managed to negotiate with the Soviet Union to bring an end to the Cold War. 

He charmed the country with his excellent public speaking skills. He came into the political spotlight after a televised speech in 1964, showcasing him as more than just an actor. His campaign was so effective that he was re-elected for another term and served as president until 1988. His charisma and performance ability ultimately helped him stay a firm favourite among many in his country.

Communication is Key

What you say matters, but how well you say it will make all the difference. Presidential speechwriter James Humes asserts that “the art of communication is the language of leadership”.  And it’s clear that it’s an art that these leaders – and others from an acting background – put to use brilliantly in their political careers.

Charisma: A natural talent or a learned skill?

This does not mean that political leaders (or anyone else) have to have had a theatre career to be gifted communicators. Of course they don’t.  But there’s strong evidence that compelling communication ability and charismatic leadership often draw heavily – whether consciously or not – on the discipline, psychology, and techniques of professional theatre.  These are things that are transferable and can be learned by non-actors through either specific training or observation, imitation and osmosis.

An example of this can be seen in Barack Obama, who impacted the world as a popular political figure in the past couple of decades. His supporters perceived him as likeable, relatable, and above all else, sincere. 

His winning trait as a political figure was his charisma. His ability to communicate and appear so much more than a politician allowed him to connect with American citizens effectively. Hence they had faith in him and his policies. He displays excellent leadership qualities, and his public speaking skills mean that even after his presidency, he remains somebody to whom people want to listen. He draws on his life experiences as a working man, making him appear more relatable and less intimidating. When he speaks, he can also convey a sense of ingenuousness, like he genuinely wants to be there and listen to what people have to say. This has enabled him to defy odds and gain authority even under the most conservative American governments.

But there are shortcomings with an approach to oratory and leadership communication that is based just on technique.  Politicians all too often fall foul of this.  There was a time when it was said of Tony Blair that he used to pause for longer than he actually spoke, resulting in his pauses becoming systematic and routine and losing any dramatic impact. Similarly, Barack Obama – great though he often was – used to get into metronomic swinging of the head and a staccato phrasing in his delivery that became a distraction, a form of ‘bleeding energy’ that suggested technique as a substitute for emotional connection and driving conviction. 

The Theory

It’s certainly true that charisma can be an important ingredient in a leader’s profile.  Charismatic leadership is a style of leadership that focuses on charm and persuasiveness. Leaders can use this technique to ensure they come across with conviction and appear fully committed to what they are saying. Dr Martin Luther King Jr is an excellent example of the power of charismatic speech and how the right leadership approach can enormously impact people. 

Charismatic leaders are more than just appealing to the masses. They use a technique that allows them to captivate people through highly skilled and dynamic communication. They are clear and persistent in what they say, never wavering from their values. They reinforce their beliefs through repetition and engage with the audience to appear connected and sincere. This leadership style aims to inspire people and get them to believe in a cause honestly. In Charismatic Leadership theory, there is a lot of focus on personal moral values and coming across as a human being with everyday human experiences. The more people believe in these leaders, the more popularity they gain each time they make a public appearance or speech.

Which Leadership Lessons Can We Take from the Theatre?

But what exactly do you have to do to bring the theory to life and make it real, something you can do, reliably, every day? In a word, the answer is ‘performance’. As with anyone who needs to make an impact and have a strong public profile, it’s not enough for a leader just to be themselves; they have to perform themselves. This requires people to be emotionally connected and rooted in their belief in what they are saying.  This generates huge energy: performance energy. This energy fuels the tone and cadence of a person’s voice, physicality, body language, facial expression, etc., and it’s what ensures that these things all align and support one another.  And when that happens – when head, heart and body are working in harmony –  the audience feels they have got ‘the real person’, someone who is ‘in flow’, with the brilliant white light of truth flowing through and from them.  It’s then that we are persuaded and moved by them.  By harnessing the lessons from the theatre, leaders and politicians can be more of themselves – with skill –  and ensure that they come over in the way they intend and that their messages land in the way they want.

Get the Right Coaching to Become a Better Leader

Being a successful leader doesn’t require you to lead the masses. You have the potential to influence and impact others on any scale. If you feel as though you could benefit from having access to the toolkit many of these leaders draw from and develop your ‘You’ Brand, then you can. Our personal confidence and communication coaching have proven time and again to effectively use the psychology techniques of the professional theatre to define leadership.

You will gain the skills to be yourself anywhere and be perceived exactly as you intend to be. Our founder, Julia Goodman, has spent decades refining her personal communication course. She takes her wealth of experience as an actress to help others better communicate in their everyday lives and learn how to master the most important role; to be themselves. Find out how you can improve your communication with a course to suit you, or learn You Brand at a pace that suits you with our video masterclass or book, You Brand: A Manual For Confidence.

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