How Much of Leadership Is About Theater?

Leadership TheaterFor reasons not worth getting into, this past week I was reminded of a decade-old HBS discussion entitled “How Much of Leadership Is About Control, Delegation, or Theater?

The original discussion was prompted by a claim from Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer that leaders only explain 10% of a company’s performance. Instead, a company’s current performance can be explained by other factors such as the overall economy, the market the company operates in, and its historical performance. While I’m not even sure I agree with that assessment, Pfeffer further claims it’s important for leaders to perpetuate the myth of having control over performance, particularly in difficult times or periods of rapid change. From the article:

As employees, we expect it of our leaders. In our behavior, we defer to leaders. And that reinforces their tendency to act like what we expect of leaders. According to this line of thinking, it may require that a leader act out the role, concealing real feelings in the process. In short, it suggests that some part of leadership is theater that perpetuates the half-truth that leaders are indeed in control.

The discussion itself is inconclusive – likely the mix of control, delegation, and theater depends almost entirely on the specific circumstances. As the author wrote, “the strongest messages I received were that if leadership involves control, it is only over setting an organization’s course and priorities.”

However, as I re-read this discussion nearly a decade later, I realized many of us now operate in matrixed organizations in which we lead by influence and not purely by authority. Given that control and delegation are inherently weaker in matrixed organizations, we might conclude that theater has to be dialed up considerably. In fact, we all know managers who spend a significant portion of their time on internal cheerleading. Surely this is required but how much is too much theater?

To compound this issue, consider the situation of a leader who is new to an existing matrixed organization but without a clear change mandate.  This suggests control is nearly non-existent and delegation difficult.  Worse still, there are other leaders in the mix who likely feel they have control and the right to delegate.  In this environment, theater might be viewed as only that – “all hat and no cattle.

I’m interested in input from my readers. If you were in this situation, how would you balance control, delegation, and theater?

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One Response to How Much of Leadership Is About Theater?

  1. Peter December 10, 2016 at 12:37 pm #

    What is the role of Theater in Leadership?

    I respect and like Professor Pfeiffer. You probably expect a ‘but . . .’ after that and I have one: I try to eliminate most theater from my management. So let me take a sec to explain that and to suggest something about starting with listening.

    I think that the role of theater in leadership is to divert attention from something that is important. It is like the magician who asks you to watch the hand and not what she is doing. If I am screwing up, boy is theater tempting.

    But on the other end of your spectrum – control is a myth. We don’t just have less control in matrix organizations. We have pretty much NO control over anything except ourselves. And when we hire smarter and more capable folks to work with us, we cede even more potential to ever control.

    What works for me? Starting with listening. Theater is presenting, it is fast and entertaining. It feels good! Listening is slow and it builds relationships. Often it feels excruciating.

    In a matrix organization (or as a consultant) you can get a quick and effective immediate solution by theater. And if you don’t want a long term solution, no worries. (And yes, in many of our organizations there is no need for long term answers.)

    Or you can build a longer term answer with listening. I look for long term solutions. I’m one of those guys who builds to own, not to sell. Starting each and every important conversation with listening is what helps me to do that.

    If I am selling a used car? Theater is great. What if I am selling the relationship to become the supplier for cars over years? I want to listen before I present. Selling an idea and then moving on to something else? Theater is perfect. Selling an idea that you want to see actually enacted? I want to ask questions, listen and repeat.

    What is the role of theater in leadership? For me it is to hide my inadequacy. I don’t want to do that any more. And I don’t want to counsel others to do it. I want to do what I have not done while writing this out for you – I want to start by listening.

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