Playing the Part of Leader

by  Alan Derek Utley  |  Leadership Development

“Don’t just act like the character. Be the character.”  I’ve heard these words from theater directors many times, and so have countless other actors and actresses on stage and screen.  The best actors are the ones who cause you to forget that you’re watching a movie or attending a live play, who can convince you that what you’re observing is real.  They are the ones who believe in and lose themselves in their characters, truly feel what they are portraying, and bring their authentic selves to their roles.

Such is the case with the best leaders.

You can learn the behaviors of a good leader, and act like one, but until you truly feel and believe in what you are doing, your “audience” may be left unconvinced, uninspired, and wanting more.  By “audience” I mean anyone within the leader’s realm of influence – peers, direct reports, managers, customers, stakeholders.  Like a realistic actor, the character-based leader engages his mind, heart, and soul in an authentic portrayal of the part.  He’s not merely acting the part. He is leading.

What can leaders learn from the best actors about how to be authentic?

Know your back story

To bring a character to life in a truly genuine way actors uncover the values and motivations that lie beneath the surface of the script with questions such as these:

Who am I, where do I come from, what do I want and why, how will I get it, what must I overcome, what happens if I don’t get it?

As leaders, how often do we stop to ask these questions of ourselves?  And what happens if we do?  We will gain awareness and understanding of what drives us.  Of our values.  Of what we believe in.  And others will see that in us.


Many actors improvise in rehearsals as a way to explore options for bringing a character to life.  They discover what works, and doesn’t work.  They learn what feels right.  Others improvise for our entertainment.  And, it is in these moments, when scripts and egos are tossed aside, that some of the most genuine and memorable moments emerge.  These moments are enabled by two fundamental rules of improvisation:

1. Do not deny

This is arguably the most important rule in improvisation.   During a scene, stage partners will make an offer of some kind – this is any action or dialog that may advance the scene – and it must be accepted.  The more offers, the fewer denials, the more interesting and real the scene.  Denial is the number one reason most improvised scenes go bad.

What would happen in our leadership lives if we were to accept more offers than we deny?  If we were to toss our corporate scripts aside and try new things?  We’d discover what works and doesn’t work.  And what feels right.

2. Make your partners look good

The best improvised scenes are those in which all stage partners focus their energy on making everyone else with whom they are onstage look good.  By doing so, each is joined in a collective effort to lift the entire group and produce something that is interesting and memorable.

Imagine if we were to focus our efforts on making our “corporate stage partners” look good.  There wouldn’t be second guessing of intent and motivation.  No questions about objectives and hidden agendas.  Instead, we’d be producing and winning, collectively.

Believe it

Think about the last time you walked away from a performance thinking an actor was robotic and fake.  You felt like they were just reciting lines.  You didn’t believe what they were saying, and neither did they.  The best actors don’t just memorize and speak their lines.  They interpret, understand, and then genuinely communicate, through their performance, the author’s intent.

We are often scripted in our roles as leaders.  We have corporate messages to cascade.  Pre-written presentations to deliver.  It is in these instances when our authentic selves must bleed through more than ever if we are to engage, inspire, and motivate our workforce.  We can’t just read the lines.  We have to understand and believe them first.

Read the reviews

Many actors will tell you they don’t read the reviews of their performances.  I don’t blame them.  Sometimes they are scathing, and other times they are so over-pouring with compliments they read as though they are advertisements written by the producers themselves.  But every now and then there is a review that is honest, constructive, and focused on making the actor better.  These are the reviews actors should read.

Same with leaders.  For most of us, our reviews aren’t likely published for public view.  But the best leaders seek out reviews, and don’t stop at the ones that are glowing.  They find the truth tellers who genuinely want them to be better.  This allows them to look in a mirror, gain further self-awareness and take responsibility for change.

Change roles

No actor plays the same part for a lifetime.  Most have a new role on a regular basis.  Even the ones that land a long-running play or a TV series eventually move on.  This keeps their craft fresh and gives them the opportunity to be challenged by new things.  Arguably there is comfort and familiarity in playing the same part, but they know it is in their best interest, and in the interest of others, to move on.

The best leaders don’t stay in the same leadership roles forever.  They change departments, functions, companies, states, countries, continents.  This offers them a variety of challenges, an adversity of conditions, a diversity of settings, and an intensity of effort.  All of which enables them to be better and more authentic.

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To be a genuine and authentic leader, try discovering your values, tossing the script aside to try new things, shining the spotlight on others, believing in what you’re doing, listening to your critics, and taking on new opportunities.

On a spectrum from acting like a leader to being a leader, where do you fall?  What techniques have you used for yourself or with those you coach, to produce that authentic leader within?

Photo image: Newsmediaimages.com

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

About The Author

Articles By alan-utley
Alan Utley is a Regional HR Director for one of the world’s largest vacation businesses. By night he dabbles in executive coaching, blogging, and public speaking and is proud to serve on the management faculty at a major university. In his own words, Alan is a “world-class wannabe expert in all things leadership and careers.” Connect with Alan at www.alanderekutley.com and on Twitter @AlanDUtley.

What People Are Saying

Karin Hurt  |  25 Oct 2012  |  Reply

I love the concept of improv in leadership. Staying acutely aware of the present scene and responding to it A great collection here.

Alan Derek Utley  |  25 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Thanks Karin. I’m glad you zeroed in on improv. Yes! It is all about being present. I recommend improv games for any person or teams wanting to test or develop their abilities in this area. There is even more to improv than what I’ve outlined here, as you probably know. Perhaps fodder for a future post!

Thanks always

Mike Henry  |  25 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Alan, Great post. I think the key is to really “own” our leadership story. When we take responsibility for our past and for making the best of it, we stop “acting” and we simply “are.” This is a great analogy to make the point about authenticity in leadership. Thanks. Mike…

Alan Derek Utley  |  25 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Hey Mike, thanks for your comment. I agree, and like the way you put it. Taking responsibility for the past, present, and future actions is the key to being. I’m glad you like the analogy.

Take care,

Jacob Yount  |  25 Oct 2012  |  Reply

I greatly appreciated this post and it’s something I’d been considering as of late. A good leader doesn’t have to go back to the handbook, reread and memorize their notes, muster up the spirit… they ARE a good leader. This aspect and ability can be inside of all of us. Don’t try to fill your role or do your job; but BE the person you should be, BE the person the role requires…. I love it, I’m pumped. Thank you, Alan.

Alan Derek Utley  |  26 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Hey Jacob,

I’m thrilled you’re pumped. I think there is a balance we need to strike. Even the best actors must start with the script because it outlines the job they must do. But, then they make it their own and bring it to life. I think as business actors we are representing an organization and the same applies for us. We learn the script, but then we lead authentically!

Thanks for your comment.

Mitch Mitchell  |  01 Nov 2012  |  Reply

I think the biggest thing you mentioned above is believing it. All the leadership training in the world means nothing if the person taking it doesn’t believe they can do it and are worthy of the title. Great point.

Alan Derek Utley  |  19 Nov 2012  |  Reply


Excellent point. I think this is where many leaders have the potential to falter. They don’t believe they can do it, and therefore do not.

Thank you for your great comment.


Lisa  |  09 Nov 2012  |  Reply

One other aspect that is not overtly mentioned but I feel is true inside this analogy is that just as actors are not the role they play but they allow parts of their authentic selves show through when they act, neither are we 100% defined by our roles at work. We bring the best part of ourselves to work as leaders but when the curtain goes down (we go home), that is our true selves. So don’t let work define you but think of it as only an aspect of yourself that will change over time.

Alan Derek Utley  |  19 Nov 2012  |  Reply


Very interesting point. I agree with the notion that our identify should be defined by more than our jobs. But what if we are a different person at home (when the curtain comes down) than we are at work? In that case are we being true to ourselves and truly authentic? This might be where my analogy ends and theater and “real life” diverge. Something to think about.

Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

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