I imagine that the title of this post is going to raise some eyebrows.
How, you might ask, do you “perform” leadership?” Doesn’t leadership just happen? After all, leaders lead and followers follow. Right?
Well, no. And that’s not a “well, not exactly.” That is a full, complete, full-stop assertion of “no.” Leadership does not just happen. Leaders are very, very rarely born. Interestingly enough, they are also not necessarily deliberately made (although there are prep schools the world over that profess to the contrary, and collect thousands—or tens of thousands—of dollars per student per year in tuition as a consequence).
I have been teaching leadership workshops for decades. I have been facilitating leadership workshops for about as long. I have coached those whose title implies a leadership role. I have mentored them. I have built them presentations. Sometimes, I have delivered those presentations on their behalf. I have planned and architected organizational change efforts, and I have helped to guide the resulting transition from one state of operational reality to another.
As a consequence, you can very plainly argue that I have been around, worked with and supported leaders for a lot of my career. In some respects, that is true. It just doesn’t happen as often—or as overtly—as you might actually think.
Up until a few years ago, I delivered an advanced project management workshop for the executive education program of a major university here in Canada. It was one of the few programs that targeted a senior project management audience; participants were often in their forties and fifties, with decades of leading projects already under their belts. They were aspiring to move beyond intuitive and evolutionary perspectives of how to manage, and ground themselves in the range of skills and experiences that went into truly leading and managing complex change.
The final module of the program addressed leadership, and what it means to be an effective, confident, ethical and responsible leader in organizations. One of the first things I had people do at the start of this module was to share with others in their work group a story of when they experienced genuinely effective leadership. I wanted them to describe the situation, the leader, what they did, why their actions were effective and what stood out for them in terms of exceptional leadership.
The extremely interesting result of this assignment was the number of participants who struggled (even at an advanced stage in their careers) to identify a single example of what they would consider true leadership. Across their career and throughout their life, they could not think of one. If you asked them to tell you a story of bad leadership, they would have been there all day. But relating a story of good leadership was for many of them simply too much of a stretch.
Those stories that did get told were also interesting, for their circumstances, their context and the particulars of what was related. Many of the stories had nothing to do with work. A significant number were personal, managing a crisis or dealing with an emergency. Often the stories weren’t about the formal, identifiable leader who was supposed to be in charge. Instead, they highlighted team members, colleagues and even bystanders who found themselves in a situation where they felt compelled to rise to the occasion, even where doing so wasn’t their job or their role.
This was not because they had position or authority, but because they felt uniquely qualified and capable to effectively provide guidance and deal with the situation at hand. Leadership didn’t necessarily happen by appointment; it emerged because of opportunity and need.
What is also important to recognize about these instances of leadership is that they weren’t necessarily the product of training or preparation. Many of the examples were genuinely of people stepping in where they were needed, valued and could make a contribution. They did not necessarily occupy what would traditionally be considered a leadership role. They were not thought of or viewed as leaders, nor might they have described themselves as such. Nonetheless, at the intersection of circumstances, capacity and opportunity, they stepped firmly into the centre of the Venn diagram and did what needed to be done.
Much of what we think about leadership is wrong. It doesn’t belong to the position that we occupy on the org chart, or the authority that we wield because of it. It isn’t a product of our natural talents. It is not the fertile result of the unique genetic makeup we acquired when we were born. It is most assuredly not the natural by-product of the school we went to, no matter how exclusive or hallowed the halls we found our lockers in. Leadership is also certainly not granted through firm opinions confidently expressed in an authoritative voice.
Leaders are not born and they are not necessarily made. There is some evidence that leadership skills and talents can be taught, and that’s a good thing. But not everyone chooses that as a focus (and many of the examples of good leadership I was referencing earlier were not about deliberate preparation so much as responding in the moment). What leaders do, however, is perform.
We play many roles in our lives. While there is a base level of ourselves within those roles, we still show up differently in each. How we play the role of parent to our children is different than as partner to our spouse, coach to an employee or direct report to our boss. There is a level of continuity that exists deep within, in that we are always being us. There is still an adaptation that occurs based on the room we are in, the people we are with, our relationship to them and what we are trying to accomplish.
This is a point that Piers Ibbitson makes in his rather brilliant book , “The Illusion of Leadership.“ It’s a book that I have mentioned here before, and I will inevitably come back to again. Ibbitson, a former theatrical director with the Royal Shakespeare Company, explicitly relates the idea of being a leader to the performances that we give, over and over again. As a leader, in any given moment, your people are looking to you—and needing you—to show up in different ways. Sometimes, they need reassurance. Occasionally they may need encouragement. More often than you might think, they need to see you being vulnerable and human. At the same time, they need to not see you as being too vulnerable, a point reinforced by Herminia Ibarra in her own work on authenticity and leadership.
This means that there is always a level of processing and consideration that needs to occur. It’s not just about reading the room, but knowing the room that you are in. You need to recognize your reason for being there, how you relate to everyone else, what you are being looked to accomplish and the outcomes that you are trying to create. Sometimes, that requires being humble and self-effacing. There will be times when you are performing a supporting role, using your status and influence to amplify others. There will also be times when you are being looked to for focus, for direction, for insight, for guidance and for counsel. How you do each of those things—how you show up in each of those contexts—requires different preparation, adjustments in terms of prominence and adaptation in terms of delivery.
This might sound contrived. You might perceive it as being fake or phony. There is nothing further from the truth. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve had to give a significant presentation. You might be presenting a business case for approval, for example. That is a high stakes meeting, with a lot riding on the outcome. Being nervous in any speaking situation is normal, but in that particular context it’s entirely expected. Letting that nervousness show, however, is deadly. Success is a product of doing the work up front, preparing your delivery, knowing your material and pushing past your fears to present clearly, confidently and competently. That’s not faking it; it is doing what is necessary. It is also, without question, performing.
I was reminded of all of this working with a client recently. They were in the process of negotiating an agreement with another organization. Things were not going tremendously well and a meeting had been called to attempt to settle the many unresolved issues. This meeting included the heads of both organizations, who were both there not just to advocate for their interests but also to endeavour to understand and attempt to bridge the concerns of the other organization.
The meeting did not go according to plan. There were a number of challenging circumstances that needed to be worked through. Common ground was elusive. The meeting started confrontationally, and frankly didn’t get much better. The organizational leaders were in the room to signal the importance of the conversation, that the outcomes mattered to both organizations. A significant expectation of leadership involvement was also about—to place not to fine a point on it—posturing and positioning. One organization was trying to project a tone of unyielding expectation: take the deal on the table, because it’s not getting any better. The other organization was trying to demonstrate their profound dissatisfaction with what was on offer, and their very serious intention of walking away if they didn’t get very different material outcomes.
The challenge was that in terms of behaviours, what was experienced in person did not line up with the intentions going in. For the organization proffering a take-it-or-leave-it proposition, the leader backed up that stance with very clear messaging and a posture and presence that spoke to a lack of willingness to compromise. For the organization looking to reframe the conversation and work towards an alternative outcome than what was on the table, the actions and behaviours of the leader were very different. Their participation was distracted, lacked confidence and didn’t project strength of commitment or readiness to walk away.
The lack of follow through on the part of this leader fundamentally undermined the negotiating stance of the team in the room. They felt thwarted, they struggled to make their points hit home without the visible backing from their leader, and they wavered in their approach because they themselves questioned whether they had the support that they truly needed. The other organization saw the same behaviours, felt the same emotional tone of the room, and proceeded to negotiate from a position of very real strength. Purely based upon the tone of the leaders and the confidence instilled by their performances, the dynamics of the room shifted in a tangible way.
In the context of this particular meeting, very little was accomplished. It remains to be seen what progress emerges in the future, but what is altogether clear is that a shift in outcomes going forward will require a very different stance and a substantively altered leadership presence. The situation is probably recoverable for the organization that was struggling, but that will only be true if the tone changes profoundly. It will require the leader in question to dig deep, find their confidence and commitment, and clearly demonstrate a much more unwavering intent the next time the two organizations come together. They will in fact need to give the performance of a lifetime.
It is altogether too easy to think that leadership comes naturally, that leaders innately know what to do and that when it is required their presence will produce the desired outcome. The reality is that leadership is a performance, and this is true in every instance. It is the result of understanding the situation at play, reading the room, calibrating what is required and figuring out how to bring about the behaviours, the attitudes and the actions required to deliver the desired results.
As Shakespeare wisely observed:
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players;— William Shakespeare, As You Like It
They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in time plays many parts…
It is contingent on all of us to know the parts that we play, the stages that we perform on and the performances that we are summoned to deliver. Above all, however, we need to deliver on those roles confidently, competently and with conviction.