Leadership and Theatre


Leadership and Theatre?

The origin of the word 'theatre' is the Greek theatron, meaning a place for viewing. The Greek word for 'drama' is dramatos, with the root word dran meaning 'to do, act, or perform'.

Some influential sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers such as George Herbert Mead and Erving Goffman have long recognized that everyone plays social roles, acts, and behaves differently according to status, relationships, and other social codes (whether at work, at home, at a religious gathering, or in social circles with peers). We are looking at others and others are looking at us. We are every person's spectator.  

Just as I am a son, a brother, a teacher, a researcher, a theatre director, a lover, an asian man, I am 'acting' very differently depending on the context. In other words, 'acting' is part of our social function, and as such, these roles collectively define our identity.

Extending it further, Richard Schechner, a theatre scholar, says that everything can be seen as a performance -- lectures, spectator sports, romantic dates, religious rituals, political speeches, and even sex (Ooh, talk about performance anxiety!). To a large extent, we are always repeating strips of (learned) behaviours from the past, yet ironically, each 'performance' is always new. Just like we can never step into the same river twice, our performance is always new and ephemeral.

That is the reason why very accomplished actors are able to act and react in the moment - as if it is the first time they have heard something (even though it has been rehearsed). It requires a huge amount of attention and concentration in-the-moment.

Furthermore, many prolific actors are able to spontaneously improvise and do things 'in character' or do things appropriate to the context without much preparation. According to Michel Saint-Denis, he states that improvisation is "a way of working through which the actor's experiences pass to nourish his imagination", and that improvisation "develops the faculties of invention, imagination, and concentration  and... a sense of freedom" (Theatre: The Rediscovery of Style and Other Writings, 2009, p. 189).

"[Improvisation] develops the faculties of invention, imagination, and concentration  and... a sense of freedom" (Saint-Denis, 2009, p. 189)

In organizations, everyone performs roles, albeit some not as convincing as others. Let's take a look at some examples:

  • If you do not believe in the role that you have been appointed (e.g. Vice President of an international consulting firm), then your actions undermine your believability. Your directors and teams will find it hard to trust you and go with you. 

  • If you stay in your role too rigidly, you may not be able to appreciate or react to what other role players in your teams are doing and saying, thinking that your script is the only right one - but there is a larger corporate narrative.

  • If you know other role players' scripts too well (because you have been in their positions before), you may insist that operations should be done in this way only. This means you deny other team players' personal interpretation of their roles.

  • If you do not know who the full ensemble are (directors, producers, actors, scriptwriters, dramaturgs, sound designers, light designers, set designers, costume designers, front-of-house staff, etc), it is very difficult to get things done. Everyone is a specialist in something - just like the various departments. But even within the same department, there are varying strengths and capabilities. Do you know your team mates well enough?

  • If you are always relying on cue cards or prompters (i.e. your marketing team and ghostwriters), you may not sound convincing when you deliver those lines.

  • If you do not know how to speak spontaneously, then you lose your sense of gravitas and presence.


I can go on and on with the parallels of the theatre world with the corporate world. But the most important thing in acting that I need to clarify is that we are not 'pretending' to be someone; we 'become' them. If you saw Al Pacino play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, he would have lost his credibility as an actor; you should not see the actor, but the character. The character (role) is foregrounded, and the actor's body, voice and mannerisms are but vehicles to portray someone else fully. 

There is always the misperception that when you are performing or acting, you become larger than life, and so you lose your authenticity. But that's not an accurate representation of acting. Very good actors such as Robert De Niro, Sir Ian McKellen, and Meryl Streep would attest that very powerful acting is to 'strip bare' who you are as a person, so that you become the character. There's no faking it. That is true transparency, honesty, and authenticity as a person. Rodney Dangerfield also said this: "Acting deals with very delicate emotions. It is not putting up a mask. Each time an actor acts he does not hide; he exposes himself."

Leaders, on the other hand, are seen too comfortable hiding behind those social masks. Acting requires you to be vulnerable - but leaders feel that they might lose their credibility if they showed their weaknesses. On the contrary, you become more real.

The power of acting can equip leaders with an incredible repertoire of skills, but it is the feeling and articulating of a wide range of emotions that make you stand out from the other leaders. 


Ed Chow is the co-founder of Theatre Incorporate. As an applied theatre practitioner, he has worked in schools, prisons, hospitals, and communities. Currently, he is the Post-doctoral Research Fellow at INSEAD Business School where he has designed the curriculum on Leadership Presence, is teaching the Executive MBA classes, and is researching on leadership and communication.

Spread the word