by Jim Bruce
Harry Davis is the first individual to connect leadership and performance art that I ever encountered. He is the Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. We met at the 2008 MOR Leaders Conference1 where Professor Davis was the featured speaker. His topic was Leadership as Performance Art.
As he spoke2 that afternoon, he began by answering the question that his presentation title left hovering in all of our minds: Why a Performing Arts Metaphor? Professor Davis gave four answers:
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts…”
We are all on life’s stage, over time we play many roles, sometimes we lead,
sometimes we follow, sometimes we are just there.
Davis makes the point that in playing any role – e.g., Associate Vice President of IT Support Services – an individual may take on different “characters” each having different personal qualities that they choose for display to others. For example, an individual who is a Senior Manager of IT Infrastructure Services, might take on primary characters of “the expert,” “the controller,” “the planner,” “the workaholic,” “the problem solver,” etc. At the same time this individual might also take on secondary characters of “the politician,” “the analytic one,” “the salesman,” etc.
Davis also notes that in order to perform any role well you must bring your appropriate character to the stage at the appropriate time. Sometimes your character will need to be at the forefront, and sometimes on the periphery, and sometimes completely off-stage supporting someone now on-stage (for example, by coaching before the on-stage occasion).
Davis told us that a prerequisite for effective leadership is having thought through how we would perform as different characters (the more the better) and developing the flexibility to bring the right character to the forefront given the task and the audience. He is a strong believer in the principle that to understand leadership, you have to experience it, and to improve, you have to practice.
So, as we come to the end of the year, you may want to consider taking time to think about the characters you now play in your current role and explore how you might further develop these characters to increase your effectiveness.
Davis is always on the lookout to explore parallels between art and work. He explored one earlier this year. Along with several collaborators, he gathered about 40 students, faculty, and staff with little or no singing experience to form a Chicago Booth pop-up choir. The UChicago News4 reports that “After three hours of rehearsal … the choir performed in front of a live audience and walked away with a new perspective on leadership. (A documentary of their experience can be found here.)
Participants in the pop-up choir learned four lessons:
One aspect of being a leader is that there is never a sense of being “done” with your development as a leader. Effective leaders are always growing, learning new tools, new approaches, having new experiences that stretch what they know and enable them to be better. I hope that this Tuesday Reading will encourage you to develop new characters for your repertoire, to take a risk and step out beyond your comfort zone, and to establish new relationships focused on learning some things that are new.
Do make this week a great learning experience for you and your team.
. . . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates. He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
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