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Glenn Close on Warren Bennis


The noted actor reflects on leadership as an authentic performing art

After reading (and rereading…many times) Warren's intriguing essay, "Leadership as a Performing Art," one thing keeps sticking in my actor's brain. It's this: Like all great actors, great leaders are skilled craftsmen and, like actors, they use their craft to actively engage whatever audience they are playing to. They can sense who their audience is and with them, set up a palpable energy exchange. A great leader's charisma, like a great actor's, makes us all into believers.

But where does the truth lie between the personas that a leader presents to us and the one we are never privy to—except, of course, in the rare moments when a microphone picks up something not intended for our ears or a camera catches an unguarded, telling look. How do we know in this world of paid political handlers, polls, and focus groups what is artifice and what is authentic? Can a leader be truly great if the face he presents to the public is not who he really is? Does it matter?

An actor doesn't have to worry about that because he knows when he is playing a character and when he is not. When he leaves the set or exits the stage, his job is done. I take off my costume, wipe the make-up off my face, put my wig back on its stand, put on my jeans, and go home, leaving the character behind. I have been lucky enough to play many different characters. I would like to think that I could be anyone I am asked to be. That is my craft.

authenticity compels the audience

The irony is that great acting is all about truth, even though one could say that the actor is just pretending. It is impossible to grab the heart of an audience and give viewers an unforgettable emotional experience unless the performance is based on truth. An actor has no other agenda but to be truthful and that truth is all about finding a point of nonjudgmental common humanity with the character to be portrayed—a common humanity between an imagined character and a very real actor.

When this point is found, the actor can infuse his performance with an authenticity that comes from self-knowledge. That authenticity has a subliminal resonance with the audience, compelling viewers to care, to pay attention. It enables them to relate to the character, intellectually and emotionally, giving them an experience that is real and unforgettable.

As Kevin Kline says in Harold Guskin's wonderful book, How to Stop Acting: "Good acting is when it is a truth that is intellectually and absolutely inspired—something personal and transcendent that moves you. It is truth that is important to you—the truth that is personal in a profound way."

A great leader doesn't shed character

So even though an actor is usually not at all like the character he plays and he leaves the character behind at the end of the day, that actor needs innate integrity, a deeply informed understanding of human behavior, and an authentic ability to empathize to move his audience and be considered great.

I am certainly no expert on great leadership or great acting, but after thinking about it, I suppose great leadership is no different than great acting—except that a great leader can't shed an imagined persona at the end of the day, or when the door to his limo is closed. Therefore, who he is in public should not differ from who he is privately…if he is truly great. And yes, it matters.

He must be authentic in his integrity—in his understanding of, his connection to, and his empathy with the people he leads. It is impossible otherwise. If he is not authentic, there will always be that unexpected live microphone or that unguarded moment of scary spontaneity. As they say, it's impossible to fool all of the people all of the time. We've grown cynical about our leaders. We wait to be fooled. I guess that is why great leaders do not come our way very often but then again, neither do great actors. When they do, we know it.

Copyright 2009 by Glenn Close

Excerpted from The Essential Bennis: Essays on Leadership by Warren Bennis with Patricia Ward Biederman (Jossey-Bass, 2009)

Glenn Close works on stage, TV, and film. She has been known to sing the national anthem for the New York Mets.

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