Why Good Leaders Are Good Actors

Originally published
Originally published: 3/1/2011

Use ‘situational leadership’ to manage the challenges at hand.

On June 5, 1944, just hours before D-Day was to begin, General Dwight Eisenhower paid a visit to the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne. He walked among the men, shaking hands, patting them on their backs, cracking jokes and boosting morale. In his pocket, however, he carried a prepared message, taking full responsibility for the mission’s possible failure.

He expected the casualty rate to climb as high as 70 percent, yet the decision to move forward with the plan had been made. Late that evening, the future president saluted each plane as it roared off the runway. And then he cried.

Eisenhower knew so many of those brave soldiers, whom he’d praised and pumped up just hours earlier that day, would never return. At that very moment in time, a sacrifice was in the making. This story provides a classic example of how good leaders must be good actors, specifically proficient in what’s called “situational leadership.”

Plain and simple, situational leadership means having the skills and understanding to assess a scenario you’re facing and manage it with the right leadership style. Considering that there are three basic types of leadership — authoritative, participative and hands-on — a good leader acts in the moment, choosing the best style for the challenge at hand.

Situational leaders are good actors because they know how to adapt their leadership style. They can mask fear, panic, and worry with a great sense of self-confidence both in themselves as well as those they must inspire and motivate. But to assume the role, they must become great believers in whatever leadership approach they’ve chosen. And, they must exude extreme self-confidence as they reflect that decision.

Like good actors, good leaders “become” the character in that moment, and their success depends greatly on the purity of their belief. If they don’t believe in what they are doing and the type of leadership role they’ve adopted, they’ll come across as a fake.

Ironic but true, good acting is one of the strategies good leaders use to communicate with credibility, build trust among their people, and motivate others. Had Eisenhower cried in front of the troops that fateful summer day or shared the message in his pocket, the consequences of D-Day could have been quite different. Instead, he put on his poker face, saving the tears for a more private, appropriate moment.

Good Leaders Are Made, Not Born

If you’re in the camp of believing that good leaders are made, not simply born, it’s important to note that situational leaders possess key characteristics, which are essentially the qualities of a great leader.

In addition to confidence, there are 11 other attributes of leadership, which include: clear vision, integrity, empathy, sense of humor, humility, passion, courage, style, and the ability to recognize potential in others, develop trust, and encourage excellence.

Some of these attributes might be innate, but many good leaders find they must develop at least some of these qualities. Doing so comes with time, experience, failure, success, coaching and mentoring, and a genuine desire to develop leadership qualities.

For instance, while there’s nothing wrong with reading books on the subject of leadership, consider reading books about great leaders, or make a list of effective qualities in the leaders you personally know. Adopt some of their ways, test them out, and see what works.

While good leaders actively study and prepare for their role as such, they also make great strides by getting the necessary experience, e.g., climbing the chain of command and taking on greater leadership responsibilities.

Coaching and mentoring clearly supports leadership growth, but good leaders and good actors must also develop a strong sense of self-awareness. Understanding shortcomings and strengths provides a launch pad for improvement and, hopefully, excellence.

In becoming a good leader, or good actor, it’s likely that you’ll have to work on issues around “emotional intelligence.” Use 360-degree evaluation to discover how effective your leadership style is, and, notably how you communicate. That’s because good actors know that when it comes to delivering a message, 7% of it is the content of the message itself, 38% is your voice tone, and 55% is about the visual presentation, which includes a self-confident persona.

So how you sound, look and carry yourself makes up 93% of what goes into being an effective communicator — a critical component to leadership success.

Playing the Role In Tough Times

It was at a dinner party just prior to World War II that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was sharing friendly words with Orson Welles, whose career as a famous actor, film director, writer, and producer was just starting to take off. Welles was seated next to the 32nd president of the United States, possibly discussing the serious events of the day or chatting about Welles’ radio adaptation of War of the Worlds. Regardless, the conversation inspired Roosevelt to lean over and whisper, “Mr. Welles, you and I are the two best actors in America.”

To run the country, arguably one of the greatest presidents of all times confessed that he had to act, and not just act but be one of the best in the national show. Roosevelt led the country through an extremely rough period in U.S. history in which there was a great degree of uncertainty and economic peril not unlike that of today. And still, in these more contemporary times, great leadership requires great actors.

It’s about company presidents, CEOs, and managers weathering the hardships with a sense of calm. When the opportunity warrants, it’s also about making the choice to throw an occasional fit or communicate frustration, disappointment, and even anger in a planned, controlled sort of way.

The role that’s played depends on the situation at hand, yet to evolve into a truly good leader, you must learn to thrive in the moment presented, managing it with purposeful grace. Doing so is a talent, for sure, but it’s also a practice, one that most any impassioned individual can learn given time, experience, self-belief, and a genuine confidence in this “art” as a business strategy.

Lee Froschheiser is president and CEO of Management Action Programs (MAP) and works with business leaders and companies nationwide. He is also co-author of the best-selling book, Vital Factors, The Secret to Transforming Your Business — And Your Life. For more information, or call 888.834.3040.

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