Three leadership lessons entrepreneurs can take from the world of theatre

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Successful business leaders are often eager to advise and teach hopeful up-and-comers on how to make it in the tough world of business – but sometimes the strongest lessons can be learned from places you least expect, like the world of the theatre.

In a piece for Forbes, leadership coach and associate professor at McGill University Karl Moore outlines three leadership lessons entrepreneurs can learn from the stage.

“An actor’s job is to create and bring to life characters, much like a senior leader may have to put on a game face in order to better lead a team,” Moore writes.

“We believe that business can learn a great deal from actors. Actors’ formation and craft involves character building, showing empathy to others, and learning how to improvise under pressure all valuable in leadership.”

1. Don’t act like a leader, be one

Moore discusses Stanislavski’s system, an approach to training actors which “stresses emotional memory and internalisation” similar to method acting, where actors use their own experiences to help them convey a character’s emotions and feelings to the audience.

Drawing on a quote from German stage actress Uta Hagen, “You experience most human emotions by age 18”, Moore believes business leaders’ emotional memory should be sufficient to “become who they must” in any given moment.

“Though an actor is not a serial killer, through internalisation they can play the part of one by recalling a time in their private lives when they felt, for example, a lack of empathy,” Moore writes.

“Comparably, an introverted leader can think of a time in their lives when they felt open and powerful in order to play the part of an extroverted executive when stepping into a boardroom filled with potential investors.”

2. Lead with emotional intelligence

“The rigorous training actors go through is emotionally and physically consuming. A large part of an actor’s training is building an understanding of their character, their desires, their main obstacle, and the action taken in order to reach their objective,” Moore says.

Actors must regularly ask themselves questions to properly understand the character they want to become and the world they’re trying to live in, says Moore, who thinks aspiring leaders can do the same by “taking stock of their own goals, short- and long-term obstacles, and main motivations, of themselves and others”.

“Successful leaders need to understand the stakeholders in their environment, including private investors, the general public, competitors, etc. Recognizing and understanding these players’ own objectives and obstacles helps leaders empathize and take more conscious actions,” Moore writes.

“By analyzing a scene from an outsider’s perspective, leaders can improve their negotiation skills and emotional intelligence – as they won’t be solely doing it for their own character, but with consideration of the scene in its entirety and all the players in it.”

3. Improvise and control the unpredictable

Despite a pressure on actors to deliver their lines accurately, Moore claims some of the greatest moments in film and theatre have come from improvised moments, and he encourages business leaders to think outside the box.

“Improvisation exercises advance one’s ability to deal with embarrassment and failure, as well as foster trust in others and the development of quick thinking skills. Excellent leaders must know how to be thrown many different obstacles and improvise appropriately,” Moore says.

“The dynamic business world is filled with hiccups, whether in the unpredictability of the financial markets or the differing personalities found in the workplace. When the situation goes awry, leaders, like actors, must find a way to improvise.

“The most effective leaders understand that mistakes or unpredictable misfortunes can be used as an advantage. Displaying emotional intelligence and showing leadership at a stressful time is essential to leading in our ever-changing world.”

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