Successful Leaders Must Learn to Act Many Parts: Harry L. Davis

May 17 (Bloomberg) -- Much has been written about the qualities of successful leaders. These attributes often seem to float above any specific context, in the same way that a consumer’s preference expressed in a focus group is assumed to be equally present when that person is shopping in a grocery store or preparing a meal at the end of a long and tiring day.

Yet a leader’s success in attracting followers -- the essence of effective leadership -- is dependent upon how people perform in their roles in front of specific audiences. It’s in the day-to-day, meeting-to-meeting performances that someone moves key initiatives forward.

Metaphorically speaking, leaders appear in many “plays” as part of their duties, leading a tense meeting on reducing costs or guiding a team charged with exploring growth opportunities. Leaders also take on different roles throughout their career, evolving from specialists in a given function to generalists who must view the company as a whole.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz understood the need to shift roles for different audiences. In his 1993 memoir, “Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State,” he wrote: “In business, you have to be very careful when you tell someone working for you to do something, because chances are high that he or she will actually do it. In government, you don’t have to worry about that. And in the university, you aren’t supposed to tell anyone to do anything in the first place.”

Varied Career

Recognizing these differences undoubtedly contributed to his success in a career that also included stints as dean of the University of Chicago business school, secretary of labor, Treasury secretary and president of Bechtel Group.

Having taught countless MBA students for almost five decades, I’m not suggesting that conceptual knowledge is unimportant. But leaders must also have the capacity to turn information into meaningful actions, and action skills demand a deep understanding of the audience and of oneself. In the same way that companies get stuck in comfortable routines that lessen their competitiveness, so, too, can leaders get stuck in the “how” of their own performances.

Barbara Lanebrown -- a Chicago Booth MBA who is also a playwright, director and actor -- and I have worked with many executives to bring more attention to the artistry of leadership. In a period of significant technological change, expanded operations throughout the world, and longer career spans, one’s ability to perform effectively across a diverse set of contexts may be the necessary condition for sustained contributions. From our experience, there is a positive net present value from supplementing “head smarts” with a healthy dose of “street-smarts.”

Imagine that John has performed well as a chief operating officer in a very hierarchical company. Roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and everyone knows the critical measures of performance. John is successful because he communicates clearly to those who report to him. He is decisive, focused, confident, and unrelenting in holding others accountable.

Now imagine two different career paths. John is promoted to chief executive officer. He’s now dealing with many constituents outside of the organization. He no longer attends daily meetings with department heads. He finds himself having difficulty communicating with his new audiences. On a different path, John could move to another organization within the same industry. He discovers that this company is much less hierarchical. Directing others or pleasing his boss is no longer as critical. The organization doesn’t operate with military precision. He then finds himself wondering if he made the right decision and if he can be effective in this new environment.

Effective Bridge

Continuing to perform one’s role in the same way over time is often comfortable; trying to express newer qualities may not be. It’s easy to listen to an inner voice that says, “I’m the kind of person who always sees the flaws in others’ position, so unless I keep pointing out the flaws, I won’t be me.” But having an impact doesn’t depend solely on me. Rather, it’s a question of the set of qualities I need to bring forth in order to be an effective bridge between an important goal for my organization and the audience that will be critical in implementing actions that support the goal.

When someone strives for greater agility, they must confront the somewhat counterintuitive notion that they have many possible identities. At times, patience is valuable; at other times, impatience should be expressed. It’s appropriate for a leader to show a warmer side in front of some audiences, and to display a more aloof quality to others. The part of us that can energize others is valuable when an organization needs more momentum; the part that can project calm is valuable when pressure and fatigue have taken hold. We can all gain access to a diverse set of personal qualities. The challenge is to acknowledge these assets and use each when appropriate.

Steven Sample, the former president of the University of Southern California, ends his 2002 book, “The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership,” with some advice he received early in his career: “Many men want to be president, but very few want to do president.”

The distinction between being and doing is valid. However, it’s not productive to view the doing aspect of leadership as something to dread -- quite the contrary. If someone has auditioned and got the part, it’s exciting to bring “downstage” those inner qualities needed to bring that role to life, to practice again and again, and then to deliver for the audience a performance that is authentic, memorable and meaningful.

(Harry L. Davis, professor of creative management at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, is a contributor to Business Class. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

Today’s highlights: the View editors on Eduardo Saverin’s citizenship and stopping Somali pirates; Ezra Klein on U.S. economic bright spots; Amity Shlaes on supply-siders and austerity; Caroline Baum on digging out of debt; Steven Greenhut on why California is still golden; Rachelle Bergstein on countercultural footwear.

To contact the writer of this article: Harry L. Davis at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.