Between 1986 and 1997, I created and edited a line of books called Currency, devoted to leadership as a vehicle for changing both business and society. I worked at that time with some great CEOs: Andy Grove of Intel, Dee Hock of Visa, Max De Pree of Herman Miller, Phil Knight of Nike, and Howard Schultz of Starbucks. I went to each of them with the same question: What is needed to make a great leader, and why are great leaders so rare?
I soon discovered that even the most admired individuals, among them the CEOs whose books I published, couldn’t explain their success any better than an outsider could. But a few stories — often anecdotes that the authors wouldn’t allow us to make public — hinted at the secret of leadership. It always had to do with pretense, playing a role, and the theatrical arts. I was intrigued, for example, by a story told at Intel about Grove’s time as leader. Grove insisted that his brilliant but shy managers attend a seminar they called “wolf school.” Attendees learned how to lean into a superior’s face and shout out an idea or proposal. By dramatically showing a fierce belief in themselves, they would convince Intel’s hard-nosed managers of the value of their idea. If they didn’t feel fierce, they had to pretend. The message: Act powerful and you become powerful. Teach your murmuring voice to howl.
Oddly enough, many leaders I met seemed to be at their strongest when they were most inauthentic. It was as if their reserves of character had been created not by digging out their authentic selves, but by playing a character. The best phrase I heard to describe this came from a 1988 conversation with Roger Ailes. He talked about the “theater of leadership.” I had just published his book, You Are the Message (with Jon Kraushar), a guide to public speaking and media presence. He was then an independent television producer and Republican campaign strategist; he had helped Ronald Reagan develop such soaring phrases as “It’s morning again in America” and “the shining city upon a hill.” To Ailes, the more polished and constructed a public figure was, the greater the mythic power his or her character conveyed.
It’s understandable that many people are concerned about this kind of image-constructing artifice, especially when voiced by the man who would later found Fox TV and showcase such well-known partisan pundits as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Alan Colmes (all of whom have constructed themselves into just that sort of larger-than-life character). But whatever your political point of view, consider this aspect of Ailes’s theme: What if it’s true that one part of leadership development is learning to explicitly play a role? What if this role playing becomes a kind of training for the inner self — not just a disguise or artifice, but also a method for adopting beliefs and values internally, so they become more natural and grounded as you continue to declaim them on the stage of your organization? As we’re learning from cognitive neuroscience, the continual performance of an action literally changes the neural pathways of the brain; it may be that by playing a leader on stage, you can develop the courage, decisiveness, and judgment needed in a leadership position. And anyone who has been to the theater knows that a good director can turn a young person who has never run anything into a convincing king.
True, playing a role so wholeheartedly can lead to overconfidence, arrogance, and even a tragic loss of perspective. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid the theatrical arts; it means you should choose your roles extremely carefully. Indeed, you’d want to spend your time, day after day, living through theatrical experience with kings, queens, and princes who struggled their way through the ambiguities and challenges of power. You would want to turn to Shakespeare.