Skip to main content

Leadership as Performance Art

| December 11, 2018

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:

  1. The phrase points to universality – As Shakespeare said so eloquently:

                  “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.

  1. Agility. A leader will appear in many “plays,” most often multiple plays at the same time. And, they also play many different roles at any one time and certainly over their lifetimes.
  2. Practice. The complicated role of a leader can be decomposed into smaller, manageable pieces which can be practiced.
  3. Impact. One’s power and influence flows from the performance of one’s role.

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:

  1. Part of learning leadership is through “followership.” You need to learn when to lead, and when to step back and listen. And, sometimes you may have to dynamically lead and follow at the same time. In the South African song Asimbonanga, They were always leading and following at the same time, listening in the moment and responding to what their fellow singers were doing.
  2. Learning leadership through failure. In learning how to sing, some are going to hit some sour notes. And, that’s OK. Failure is often the best way to learn. “Through choral singing, the students discovered that they have to keep singing even when they make a mistake, otherwise the song stops.” Davis’ collaborator Mollie Stone, choral director and lecturer at the University of Chicago, said, “We are afraid of failure. Until you try all sorts of different approaches, you can’t succeed, because you have to know what not to do often times before you know what to do.”
  3. Learning leadership through respect and humility.  “If leaders can let go of their predispositions and open themselves up to differences and appreciate them, they can better understand how to engage people from other cultures in ways that are productive.” Paying attention to others takes your attention off yourself and enhances your learning.
  4. Learning leadership through vulnerability. Being vulnerable is a frightening prospect for leaders. From the choir experience, participants experienced first-hand how much they could learn when they gave themselves the freedom to take risks. One Booth student said that “I realized that even when you’re in a leadership position there are times when you don’t feel completely confident and you have to lean in and allow the team to give you the energy to move forward.”

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.
Notes and References:

  1. For a decade, beginning in 2008, the MOR Leaders Programs held annual conferences to provide opportunities for individuals who had attended one of the workshop programs to gather to renew relationships and to gain new knowledge. Initially, the first few of the conferences were physical conferences, most often in Chicago. Later, we experimented with virtual conferences which took on several different forms. The last of the conferences was held in 2017.
  2. The slide set, “Leadership as Performance Art” from the 2008 MOR Leaders Conference, can be found here.
  3. Here is an illustrative list of “characters” derived from Davis’ presentation at the MOR 2008 Leaders Conference and MOR Workshop Materials: The Analytic One, The Collaborator, The Curious One, The Energizer, The Expert, The Generalist, The Loner, The Patient One, The Problem Solver, The Rebel, The Storyteller, The Visionary, The Workaholic, etc.  Your character isn’t in the list?  Just add it the list.  And, as you think about any character you take on in your role, think about the personal qualities that character might display – the perspectives they might take on, the talents they possess, their values, their behaviors, and their skills.
  4. Sandra M. Jones, Leadership Lessons from Singing in a Choir, UChicago News, November 23, 2018.