Authenticity and Acting
Saturday, January 28, 2023
Acting seems like the most inauthentic thing to do — like putting an external façade to manipulate the audience to get the desired effect. Most people learning to lead don’t associate acting with leadership. I balked when I opened the first chapter, “Presence: What Actors Have That Leaders Need,” of Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar’s Leadership Presence a few years ago. In that chapter, the authors described presence as “the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others.” I was okay with that definition, but it did not make sense to compare it to acting. For me, acting was an external façade, while authenticity was conforming your external behaviors to your internal state. I thought that acting was the opposite of being authentic.
I was not alone. Just last week, an ex-colleague of mine made a similar remark comparing acting in the context of leadership to ingenuity and manipulation. Some time back, I read Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t. In that book, he wrote a chapter on “Acting and Speaking with Power.” I did not like his style or substance when I first read it. My firm belief in authenticity made me dislike the association between leadership and acting. That began to change as my understanding of authenticity and leadership developed. Let’s look at some examples.
Watch Obama’s speech on the night of the New Hampshire primary in 2008. This is the speech where he rallied the audience and the nation watching television with his “Yes, We Can” message. Watch the video and follow the emotions of the audience.
Obama started the address with a light-hearted laughter, but then you will notice concern, anger, disappointment, and optimism in his speech. Also, see the change in the pace of his delivery. He slowed down for applause sometimes, but other times he continued to build up the audience’s emotions. As the speech continued, notice an emotional harmony develop between the audience behind the stage and Obama. Then see the audience erupt in a chorus when he started the part of the speech with “Yes, We Can” at about the 10 min 30-second mark. You will notice that Obama was entirely in control of his and the audience’s emotions. Your political affiliation aside, would you doubt Obama’s authenticity? Would you call it acting?
If you’re not convinced, let’s watch Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dream” speech, which he delivered near the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963.
In that speech, MLK seemed aware of the historical context of his remarks. His delivery too had a purpose. Listen to him as he switches from describing the “sweltering heat of oppression” to “I have a dream” without a pause at the three-minute mark of the video. Listen to his voice quiver when he says, “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” A few seconds later, listen to his intonation change and pitch rise when he says, “down in Alabama.” Would you doubt his authenticity? Would you call it acting? He knew that the address was a defining moment in the history of the civil rights movement. A New York Times article written on the 50th anniversary of that speech described that speech as a “testament to the transformative powers of one man and the magic of his words.”
I hope you are convinced by now. Acting is what great leaders do. They choose the right emotions in front of the right audience at the right time for the right purpose. Not doing so dilutes the purpose, and the leader may not get that opportunity again.
Imagine Obama’s state of mind when he made the “Yes, We Can” speech. He didn’t win the primary that day in New Hampshire. He lost to his rival, Hillary Clinton. That speech was supposed to be a concession speech. Yet, that was one of Obama’s best speeches. Consider what might have happened if Obama said, “Good night folks, we lost it,” and left. For those curious, read the backstory of this phrase in The Washington Post.
That’s the hallmark of great leadership. Great leaders tune their emotions to the need of the hour but do not let their feelings ruin the cause. Note the difference between allowing your internal state to guide your behaviors vs. letting the purpose and audience tune your inner state.
That’s why great leaders can show anger in one meeting, kindness in another, and frustration in another. Each emotion has a purpose. When you don’t tune your emotions and words for the audience and purpose, you are letting opportunities for positive change go. This is why self-awareness and a calm internal state matter for leadership. That’s when you can choose emotions purposefully and time them to the right audience. Doing so does not make you inauthentic. It makes you situational.