The skills that actors use to inspire and influence have hugely powerful applications in the world of business. These skills are not just useful for leadership; they are essential. Great business leaders, like the acting greats, must communicate with conviction, convey passionate purpose and set exciting precedents. They must create meaningful connections and influence people every day. In sum, like an actor, a leader must have presence.
Yet on the face of it, the world of business and the art of acting seem diametrically opposed. Business is mostly an outside-game driven by results. We focus on our goals and must hit our targets if we want recognition and success. Failure is frowned upon, and the pressure to perform can be immense. Consequently, high-performers are reduced to operating on a mechanistic, overly-cerebral level just to fit in. The fear of making a mistake takes over and they’re left running from goal to ever-shifting goal without stopping to reflect on how to do things differently.
Such high-pressure workplaces are detrimental to leadership innovation. Leaders often feel stifled and unable to question outmoded practices. Yet without innovation, there is little room for progress. What transpires is a swath of nervous leaders who struggle to develop their presence or inspire their teams. And with such ineffective communication starting at the top, it’s no wonder anxiety trickles down and permeates the entire organisation, lowering team morale, reducing productivity and breeding mediocrity.
The art of acting approaches performance differently. Unlike in business, actors concentrate instead on their inside-game; on what they intuitively feel moment to moment with far less attachment to outcome. This does not mean an actor has no purpose in any scene. On the contrary, a great actor will be highly dedicated to their goal and will know, with every fibre of their being, why this goal matters. However, the ability to disentangle themselves from the pressures of performance means they deliver creatively and authentically.
When an actor does this, their work becomes quite brilliant, as they no longer try to conform or follow a prescribed outside diktat. Instead, they put themselves firmly in the driving seat of their creative responses. And, by doing so, they step into the present moment. This is where the magic happens! It’s the sweet spot where an actor becomes spontaneous, dynamic and resourceful, and where they have the freedom to communicate their boldest choices in the service of their goals. It is only in the present that an actor can reclaim the power to think for themselves. And it is this very daring that inspires an audience and evokes powerful emotion. We are compelled to watch and listen.
Brilliant acting brings to light the paradox of performance; the less anxious we are about results, the better our performance becomes. This paradox is crucial to business and also acts as a buffer against the onslaught of high-pressure. As business leaders, we can still know the direction we want to move in. However, we must detach ourselves from any performance pressure if we are to cultivate our daring and creative self-expression.
This is the only way to develop leadership presence and compel our clients to keep working with us.
How do actors develop this elusive presence? In a nutshell, they rigorously train. Before ever setting foot on a professional stage, the first thing an actor does is sharpen their non-verbal communication skills. This first step is the difference between an actor who is taken seriously and one who is ignored. Breath is fundamental. An actor must deepen their breath if they are to communicate with any sense of conviction. Something as seemingly insignificant as a shallow or held breath can shatter an actor’s credibility, leaving them sounding weak no matter what they say.
Physicality is also key. An actor must strengthen their body language so they can powerfully own their space as well as hold that space effectively for others. If an actor is weak in the body, their physicality will signal either self-dismissal, or it’s antithesis, an aggressive bluff. Both diminish credibility and substance. An actor must therefore stand strong, open and ready in their body so that they can authentically respond to the demands of any moment.
With this strong physical core, an actor is better positioned to master their vocal technique. This is the sound of their voice beyond the actual words spoken. For an actor to communicate with passion and purpose, they must develop a dynamic, fluid and rich sound — one that commands the space and draws us in. No one wants to listen to a monotone vocal quality which indicates a robotic repetition of words without feeling or depth. It is as dull in acting as it is in business.
However, an actor’s training does not end there. Even with the strongest centre, most reflexive body and richest voice, if an actor is not connecting with their audience, communication still falls flat. The best actors are therefore also the best listeners. They know that a truly compelling performance hinges on their ability to tune into the thoughts and feelings of others without reacting emotionally. And the last part is key. By staying calm and non-defensive, they can listen to the human behind the words, better sense their underlying needs and respond accordingly given their own objectives.
In other words, they personalise the other without personalising their reactions. This is a delicate act and represents the height of emotional intelligence: a rare skill that builds trust and rapport. Without this level of listening, a scene will feel lifeless. The characters may still be speaking but not much will actually be said.
With all these non-verbal elements serving the actor, they have much more freedom to respond expressively — no matter how tough a scene may be. Such characters move us and make us feel something. They encourage us to understand a different point of view, they excite us about a new possibility, and they motivate us to adapt and grow with changing times. Their presence is luminous. This begs the question: When was the last time you ever felt that way in a business meeting or whilst watching a senior executive deliver a presentation? It happens, but not often.
Presence is as imperative to leadership as it is to acting, and is a rare skill that separates the brilliant leader from the mediocre. When we express ourselves authentically and creatively, something miraculous happens: we develop radical empathy. We start to show that we care personally, we dare to commit more to our work, and we breed loyalty. We may disagree with our peers, but we can attune to their needs and better navigate difficult conversations without taking things personally. This is true power.
Developing leadership presence is a game-changer and the key ingredient to ascending business leaders and actors alike. The level of presence you bring to your role, how you show up, how you connect to others, how you speak, listen, act — every single move you make on the corporate stage — combine to create the impact you have. We all want our existence to have weight and substance for others. And the same thing applies to business leaders as it does to actors.
We all want presence because no one wants to be ignored.
“Life beats down and crushes our souls and theatre reminds us that we have one” — Sanford Meisner