Warren Bennis: Acting the Part of a Leader

The first time Franklin Delano Roosevelt met Orson Welles, the President graciously said: "You know, Mr. Welles, you are the greatest actor in America." "Oh, no, Mr. President," Welles replied. "You are."

The point is vital, even if the story is apocryphal. Consider the actorly attributes they shared. Both were masters of the medium of radio—Roosevelt reassured the nation with his Fireside Chats; Welles scared listeners out of their wits with his War of the Worlds broadcast. Both men used wardrobe and props—Welles had his rakish hats, FDR his cape and cigarette holder—to create dashing images despite their physical imperfections.

A star succeeds by engaging audiences. Similarly, a leader succeeds only when followers share his or her vision. Leaders have the ability, as playwright Arthur Miller observed, "to find the magnetic core that will draw together a fragmented public." An analysis of great political speeches would reveal a wealth of skillfully brandished plural personal pronouns—such as Winston Churchill's assertion that "we shall never surrender."

As for how leaders emerge, I defer to the guru from Stratford-upon-Avon. In Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, Malvolio, tangled in his cross-garters, pronounces: "Some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." Like so many comic moments, this one is packed with truth. But don't assume these three paths get equal traffic.

Most leaders acquire greatness when a role requiring it is thrust upon them. Look at the stature and number of leaders forged in the American Revolution: Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton spring to mind. A few years back, as we did research for our book Geeks & Geezers, co-author Bob Thomas and I interviewed the late John W. Gardner. The only Republican in Lyndon Johnson's Cabinet, Gardner was a reticent, even shy man who helped create such groundbreaking organizations as Common Cause. To his surprise, he discovered during World War II that he was a gifted manager. Until then, he didn't respect managers—but once cast as one, he thrived. Gardner vividly explained how role and talent can converge to produce greatness. In his case, "some qualities were there waiting for life to pull those things out of me." No doubt many potential leaders never land the roles that would pull greatness out of them.

The late Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack once told me that he was at a loss when he first moved behind the camera, so he simply acted like a director. "I even tried to dress like a director—clothes that were kind of outdoorsy," he said.

That raises crucial questions about leadership and acting: Can a leader be authentic, or do the masks of command force the leader to be something other than his or her true self? Can a leader both act and be real? These are questions with no easy answers. But the feeling of not being up to the job, the belief that the role is too big, is something every leader has felt. It is evidence that the role is greater than the individual—and thus worth taking on. Pollack made the leader's requisite leap into the unknown, accepting the risk of failure that is the first step in becoming a leader—and he excelled.

That adaptive capacity is the most important attribute in determining who will become a leader. It's also the defining trait of the best actors. Inhabiting roles other than the one most of us think of as self is essential to both. So is the empathy needed to project yourself into someone else's skin. FDR and Churchill seem to have known our fears better than we did and addressed them before we had articulated them.

Like great actors, great leaders create and sell an alternative vision of the world, a better one in which we are an essential part. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote that Churchill idealized his countrymen with such intensity that in the end they rose to his ideal. Mahatma Gandhi made India proud of herself. Washington and the other Founding-Fathers shared that great leader's gift of making people believe they could be—and were—part of a great nation. Martin Luther King Jr. had that same genius. When you consider such towering and theatrical leaders, you realize leadership may be the greatest performing art of all—the only one that creates institutions of lasting value, institutions that can endure long after the stars who envisioned them have left the theater.

Excerpted from The Essential Bennis by Warren Bennis with Patricia Ward Biederman.

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