Is leadership effectiveness all about acting?



Is leadership effectiveness more about the theater than the boardroom?

Leaders are supposed to be model citizens. “Lead by example” is the common phrase. “Transparency” is the big buzzword.

What does some of the latest research say?

“Faking it seems, to a degree, to just be part of good people management,” reported Chiara.

Stanford MBA school professor and author of the book Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’tJeffrey Pfeffer makes it pretty clear:

Leadership is theater.

Via Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t:

Her experience suggested that the secret of leadership was the ability to play a role, to pretend, to be skilled in the theatrical arts. Rubin is right. Differences in the ability to convey power through how we talk, appear, and act matter in our everyday interactions, from seeking a job to attempting to win a vital contract to presenting a company’s growth prospects before investment analysts… It may not seem right that we are judged on our “appearance,” on how we present ourselves and our ideas. But the world isn’t always a just place. To come across effectively, we need to master how to convey power. We need to act, and speak, with power.

Is this true?

In research studies leaders weren’t necessarily more competent than other team members yet those with the most dominant personalities ended up running things merely because they spoke first and most forcefully — not because they knew more.

Via The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us:

As you’ve probably anticipated, in the actual experiment, the group leaders proved to be no more competent than anyone else. They became leaders by force of personality rather than strength of ability. Before starting the group task, the participants completed a short questionnaire designed to measure how “dominant” they tended to be. Those people with the most dominant personalities tended to become the leaders. How did the dominant individuals become the group leaders even though they were no better at math? Did they bully the others into obeying, shouting down meek but intelligent group members? Did they campaign for the role, persuading others that they were the best at math, or at least the best at organizing their group? Not at all. The answer is almost absurdly simple: They spoke first. For 94 percent of the problems, the group’s final answer was the first answer anyone suggested, and people with dominant personalities just tend to speak first and most forcefully.

How does this happen?

Confidence is often a signal for expertise. The human brain can be lazy, loves shortcuts and often picks the quick signal over the facts.

The result? Research shows people will pick confidence over actual expertise:

The research, by Don Moore of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, shows that we prefer advice from a confident source, even to the point that we are willing to forgive a poor track record.


So if leaders are just acting why don’t their teams crash and burn?

With the best teams, leaders don’t matter:

In high functioning teams the group takes over most of the management function themselves,” says Stephen Courtright, assistant professor at Texas A&M University who recently received his doctoral degree from UI and was a member of the research group. “They work with each other, they encourage and support each other, and they coordinate with outside teams. They collectively perform the role of a good manager.”

In fact, ninety percent of team success is determined before they start work.

Via Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing

…what Hackman calls the “60/ 30/ 10 Rule.” Having studied teams in many settings, from airplane cockpits to symphony orchestras, Hackman believes that 60% of a team’s fate has been written before the team members even meet. Its destiny is decided by a combination of the team leader’s efficacy, whether the team’s goal is challenging yet attainable, and the ability level of the people recruited to the team. Thirty percent of a team’s fate is sealed with the initial launch of the team— how the teammates meet and, in those initial exchanges, how they split up the responsibilities and tasks before them. They need to agree on common codes of conduct and shared expectations. All told, 90% of a team’s fate has been decided before the team ever begins its real work. 

That said, leaders aren’t pointless and charisma isn’t just shallow. It has real effects.

Charismatic leaders bring out our best and make us do better work.

Via The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism:

If you’re a leader, or aspire to be one, charisma matters. It gives you a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining the very best talent. It makes people want to work with you, your team, and your company. Research shows that those following charismatic leaders perform better, experience their work as more meaningful, and have more trust in their leaders than those following effective but noncharismatic leaders.

As Wharton School business professor Robert House notes, charismatic leaders “cause followers to become highly committed to the leader’s mission, to make significant personal sacrifices, and to perform above and beyond the call of duty.”

And acting actually makes you a better leader. Andy Grove, cofounder and former CEO of Intel, once said:

Via Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t:

Well, part of it is self-discipline and part of it is deception. And the deception becomes reality. Deception in the sense that you pump yourself up and put a better face on things than you start off feeling. But after a while, if you act confident, you become more confident. So the deception becomes less of a deception.



Okay, gimme some leadership drama lessons

The key to looking like a leader is balancing the appearance of power and warmth.

Via The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help–or Hurt–How You Lead:

When first introduced to a leader, we immediately and unconsciously assess him or her for warmth and authority. Obviously the most appealing leaders are seen to encompass both qualities, and the least effective leaders are those we regard as cold and inept. But as Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile described in an aptly titled article, “Brilliant but Cruel,” the problem is that we often see competence and warmth as being negatively related—warm leaders don’t appear as intelligent or skilled as those who are more negative and meaner, and tough leaders are judged far less likeable.

So the best leadership strategy is to embody both sets of traits—and to do so early and often. Let people see both sides of your leadership character. Let them know right from the beginning that you are caring and credible.

What shows authority and power?

Via The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help–or Hurt–How You Lead:

As a leader, you show authority and power by your erect posture, command of physical space, purposeful stride (like that of Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs as he moves across the stage during a presentation), and firm handshake, and through an array of hand signals including “steepling” and palm-down gestures that send nonverbal signals of authority.

And what communicates warmth?

Via The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help–or Hurt–How You Lead:

As a leader, you communicate warmth nonverbally with open body postures, palm-up hand gestures, a full-frontal body orientation, positive eye contact, synchronized movements, head nods, head tilts, and smiles.

(Here are more tips on building charisma.)


But does this make me a faker?

There’s definitely an ethical question here.

I’ve posted similar thoughts before about the issue of “fake it ’til you make it.”

In my interview with Harvard leadership expert Gautam Mukunda, author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, he spoke about the power and limitations of impression management, and the ethical question it presents:

You’re performing. If you perform for long enough you can begin to inhabit the role. You can begin to change who you are… When you’re acting out these roles, what you’ve got to remember is you are changing yourself. Over time you will change yourself into that person, so it had better be the person you genuinely want to be.

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