Acting Leadership

The best leader's role becomes teaching others to strengthen and repurpose themselves when they go through periods of being listless, complacent, or disconnected.

While in Bristol, UK, I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with Marc Danbury. While you might not immediately know his name, if you're a fan of British television and cinema (in movies such as "Johnny English" and "Mistresses" and the series "Poldark," "The Bill," "Casualty," and many more), you may have seen him act in a wide array of roles, from black-hearted villain to blissed-out nature lover, to blustering blowhard to comedic father, to sensitive husband and more. (fyi—his sample showreel:

In addition to a busy dramatic career, Marc also consults with companies to elevate their leaders' presentation and communication skills. His approach to this coincides identically with his primary acting career—and, I can attest, to how he lives and interacts when not "on," performing for stage or screen or consulting with industrial clients. Here are four principles he conveys to business people that are adapted from his mastery of the acting craft.

  • Connection and respect. Marc knows and practices the principle that persuasion begins with connecting with others. And good connections only come from respecting them. No matter what words he chooses, being disdainful will create pushback, the opposite of open-minded receptivity.
  • Energy exchange. As an excellent actor and long-term martial artist, Marc identifies the role of energy in communications and persuasion. Not in the sense of attempting to overpower others or envisioning them as adversaries to defeat. But Marc emphasizes the greater import of helping people light their own internal fire, rather than merely energizing them from outside. Sure, leaders can and should provide the sparks for change and improvement, but for the practical daily motivation of understanding and committing to their work and organizational mission, people have to ultimately, ongoingly feed their own flames. So the best leader's role becomes teaching others to strengthen and repurpose themselves when they go through periods of being listless, complacent, or disconnected. This then repositions workers from passive energy drains into generators for themselves and others.
  • Reading and reacting. Marc emphasizes interpreting his "script" according to how others respond. Of course, strong leaders are attempting to make some kind of impact in their strategic communications. They therefore plan their objectives—that is, where they want to go, along with the overall effect they wish to engender. For example, they may aim to inspire or reassure or raise expectations or surface ineffective/unacceptable actions, or more. They can best accomplish these by reading and reacting. Even in a long-running stage play, Marc indicates the consummate actor delivers his/her lines differently in each performance based on how the action flows that evening and how other characters interplay (as well as reactions from observers). Those actors—and leaders—who precisely predetermine not only what they say but also how they will deliver communications tend to be wooden, inflexible, rarely conveying the energy needed to stoke the embers of action in others. For actors and leaders, rigidly overplanning how to communicate implies not listening, perceiving, and reacting effectively to others. It's like a consummate tennis player deciding in advance what she'll do during the third volley of a final match without seeing what happens in the first two exchanges. In other words, leaders should avoid being too wrapped up in their plans and leave room to deal with the uncertainty of how others might respond. Doing so makes it less likely strong communicators will be blindsided by seemingly out-of-the-blue responses. This, of course, requires having some self-confidence in being able to think on their feet. As the great performing philosopher Will Rogers explained, "Planning gets you into things. Hard work gets you out of them."
  • Presenting to engage and move. Marc spends a fair amount of time delivering presentation skills training to organizations. His approach to both training leaders and presenters? Think of and plan for "participants," not for an "audience." Engage to energize. Participate to best transfer skills. Activate others to change their mindsets and reduce their fears of presenting. Involve in order to reposition people from being aloof critics into becoming "repurposed" in their own direction and skills. Even in seemingly non-interactive theatre or film, the best performances engage multiple senses in those watching and, most ideally, reach each one emotionally, touching them personally. While there are multiple methods for doing so, all rely on Energy Exchange, Reading and Reacting, and Creating Connection.
  • Allow others to develop and live by their own style. Marc has worked with some well-known directors who literally take their title to the Command-and-Control extreme, demanding to minutely specify every aspect, every nuance of actors' delivery. From contrasting experience, he's found that directors—and leaders—elicit the greatest creativity by providing broader direction, then encouraging and listening to cast members' interpretations of their roles. Example: When asked by a press member how the character Aragorn would respond to a certain challenge, "Lord of the Rings" Director Peter Jackson pointed to Viggo Mortensen, who played that part, saying, "Better ask him. He'd know."

The highest level of acting is more than just delivering pre-set lines, just as best presenting is much more than reading out a scripted speech. But each art has similar powerful underlying methods for accomplishing the ends of impacting thoughts, feelings, and actions.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Robert Pater is Managing Director and creator of the MoveSMART® system for preventing strains/sprains, slips/trips/falls, hand injuries implemented in over 60 countries. Their emphasis is on “Energizing, Engaging Expertise” to simultaneously elevate safety performance, leadership and culture. Clients include: AdvanSix, BHP Billiton, BMW, BorgWarner, BP, Cummins, Domtar, DuPont, Hawaiian Airlines, Honda, Honda Canada, JELD-WEN, Keolis, Kloeckner Metals, Marathon Oil, MSC Industrial Supply, NDCP, Nissan, ONE Gas, Rio Tinto, S&C Electric, United Airlines, U.S. Steel, WestRock, many others. Robert writes two ongoing columns for Occupational Health & Safety and for Professional Safety.

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