If You Want to Be a Successful Leader, Study Acting

Updated: Jan 11

You cannot be a successful leader without empathy and emotional intelligence. These are essential skills for navigating relationships, office politics, managing people, leading teams, and inspiring audiences. Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s point of view and feelings. If you are a parent or a teacher, then you know that empathy is a skill. It is not an innate ability. “Survival of the fittest” requires us to be selfish. It requires you to operate out of scarcity, to acquire and keep things for ourselves. Empathy requires you to be vulnerable so you can share, connect, and give to others. It enables you to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they are as worthy as you.

Empathy is essential to leadership because it enables you to put yourself in another person’s shoes. This is the very definition of acting, imagining yourself in another person’s circumstances. In our modern world of 24 -hour news cycles, 30-second video clips, and tweets, we have been trained to automatically judge other people. We watch journalists criticize leaders at a whip lashing -pace. The second after a speech is given, or a sports team makes a play on television, the commentary is given. We call it analysis, but really, it’s criticism. More airtime is given to “analysts” and “experts” offering their snap judgments on events in our world than is given to the actual events themselves. Anyone who appears on television is scrutinized for their actions, words, tone, and beliefs. If they are a woman, add their clothes, hair, make-up, and voice to the list. No wonder public speaking is the number one fear of adults.

When you judge another person, you picture them in your own circumstances. You think to yourself, “I would never do that” or “I never would have made that choice.” What you’re not doing is imagining them fully, in their circumstances. When you take a moment to consider what the other person’s circumstances might be, start to fill up your mind with great leadership questions. What has happened in this person’s life to make them act this way.

Where are they getting the information that has formed their opinion? What made them think this was the best course of action? What made them think this was their only choice? What would have to happen for me to make this choice? This is how you develop empathy.

This is the process that an actor goes through when they are creating a character. Actors read the script and gather as much information about the character as possible. We call this information the given circumstances. Along with the story’s immediate situation, a character’s given circumstances include things like; their economic background, education, relationships, and the society in which they exist. For example, playing a working woman’s looks very different if the story is set in 2020 compared to 1950 or 1850. We also examine the alignment between how the character sees themselves and what other characters say about them. Actors essentially conduct a 360-degree assessment of a fictional character.

An actor’s job is to take words on a page and transform them into a living, breathing, fully developed person. Exploring and imagining how all the given circumstances influence the thoughts, choices, and actions of character is the first step in that process. Sanford Meisner, one of the most influential acting teachers of the 20th century, defined acting as “living truthfully in an imaginary circumstance.” This is the first step to creating a character and developing your empathy skills.

Another fundamental truth about acting is that you cannot play a character and judge while judging the character. You can undoubtedly play a person that says and does things you would never do. However, you cannot be actively judging the character while you’re playing them because it distances you from them and prevents you from being authentic and sincere in the role. The audience won’t buy it. This forces an actor to find the character’s humanity no matter how different the character’s values, choices and behaviors are from their own. Actors figure out how to empathize and understand why the character does what they do in the story and they find a way to feel 100% justified when they’re acting it in the moment. It requires an incredibly in- depth process to achieve deep empathy and understanding for characters that are different from ourselves in every way. Which is why acting fully develops empathy and emotional intelligence skills, along with communication skills. It’s also why theater and film artists tend to be so accepting of new ideas, opinions, and behaviors. They literally spend their lives living and telling other people’s stories.

When you take the time to deeply consider another person’s circumstances, either by asking them directly, or researching their past, you begin the process of empathizing with that person. And once you empathize with a person, it becomes very difficult to judge them harshly. You may still disagree with their decision or point of view, but you will have a better understanding of why they think, feel or behave the way they do. Once you understand another person, it is much harder to condemn them and easier to forgive. It is through stories that we understand a person’s circumstances and behaviors. It’s through empathy that we connect to our shared humanity. I believe acting and storytelling skills are two of the best tools for achieving professional success and creating more empathy in our world.

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