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Yes, leadership is an act (and that’s not bad!)

Nobody feels 100% "on" all the time. Learn how you can still be a leader in public regardless of the situation.

5 min read


Yes, leadership is an act (and that's not bad!)

Kyle Head/Unsplash

“Never perform with your heart not being in it. Never allow yourself to get to the point where it’s a job. Always make sure that your spirit is focused so that communicating music to other people is a central priority for you.”

That’s what pianist and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” about his approach to playing music. Tilson Thomas was recently named a Kennedy Center Honors recipient for lifetime achievement in the arts.

Good entertainers instinctively know what Tilson Thomas means. They deliver their material in ways that seem alive and new, even though they have done the song, a bit or a monologue 1,000 times before. The good ones inject it with life, even when they are not feeling it.

The same goes for athletes. Seldom does a pro take the field or the court and feel tip-top. No, they have aches and pains, as well as distractions in their heads. But they put it all aside and deliver.

That’s a lesson for anyone in a leadership position. You have to bring your heart and spirit to the job. People know when you are going through the motions. One vivid example brings this concept into sharp focus.

When Alan Mulally was CEO of Ford Motor, he often did “grip and grins” — pictures — with members of the franchise dealer network, all independent businesspeople. It’s a common practice, and most CEOs do it, but sometimes reluctantly, complete with a plastic smile and limp handshake. Not Mulally. He plunged into the task with a full heart and plenty of spirit.

To everyone who came to take their picture taken with him, Mulally asked questions about their business. He posed carefully, even asking the photographer if it looked right. After the snap was taken, he grinned or laughed and patted them on the back. Mulally did this not a few times, not 20 times, not 100 times, but over 500 times. In one night. And did it again in subsequent nights with different groups of dealers.

Bring your technique to your leadership

That’s bringing your heart to the game. Doing something repeatedly takes commitment as well as technique. Leaders in public — and these days public can mean anything from the cafeteria to testimony at City Hall or the halls of Congress — must be aware they are on stage. And as performers, they must act.

So, here are some techniques to employ.

  • Prepare in advance. What do followers want from you? Maybe it’s a presentation or a handshake. Or it could be a special message about what’s happening at headquarters? Deliver what’s expected, as well as be ready for surprises. Some people may want to take a verbal swing at you, so be prepared for it. Take it in stride. Listen to what they say. Answer them respectfully. You may not satisfy them immediately, but you will have demonstrated that you have heard the complaint.
  • Keep your chin up. Days get long, and especially when you are doing something repetitious like shaking hands or meeting and mingling with new employees. Understand something: To them, you are special. So, act the part. Act like the person in charge they want you to be.
  • Find joy. Look for opportunities to compliment employees on what they have accomplished. Stay in the moment and look people in the eye when you meet them. Smile when appropriate. Relish opportunities to share a laugh.

Might skeptics say, isn’t he or she faking it? Sure, they are, just as actors or ballplayers do night after night. They are not feeling 100% every time or even every other time. They rely on their technique. So, too, can leaders in public.

Legendary acting teacher Sanford Meisner once said, “Acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Adjusted for leaders, we might say, “Leading is behaving truthfully under real circumstances.”

Truth comes from doing what you do, and when you behave honestly and with integrity, people pay attention, and they will allow you to lead them.


John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. In 2019, Global Gurus ranked him No. 9 on its list of top 30 global experts, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of 14 books, including“MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership” and his newest, “GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.” Learn more about why he wrote “GRACE” in this short video.

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