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?


2 Responses 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.

  2. Robin Hunter May 2, 2017 at 8:17 am #

    Hello Jonathan,
    I am so grateful I came upon this discussion and blog. I have a unique perspective on this from having been a leader of a corporation and now on the bottom rung of a production floor of a major corporation. This has blessed me by allowing me to see and experience the complete picture of leader.
    I have found that being a leader one must have a passion for people as much as for success. As a leader of a corporation, the leader is leading people to success. This is a relationship of people for a purpose and goal, and not merely a relationship with the ‘corporation/stakeholders’. A good leader will recognize this and define to those following what the purpose and goal is, as well as, how that relates and impacts each one that he/she is leading.
    The theater or theatrical part is simply the presentation, but the heart of the leader should never be false. Nothing good comes from a false message. There is no foundation in the false message and the message and business suffers and is weakened if not destroyed. However, a message based in truth and honesty revealing heart and a very small portion of weakness based in the strength of truth, conveys the message to those being lead that this is one of integrity and is one ‘we’ can follow. This provides the solid foundation and structure on which success is built upon.
    A leader who is willing to listen and learn as they go strengthens and provides a greater success. The leader who takes the time to listen with consistency and with respect for those people he or she stands upon, showing he or she values every person in every job within the corporation, thus adding greater value to the corporation. This provides the opportunity to educate those he or she leads, thus tripling the value in the employees, stakeholders, corporation, and the seat in which the leader sits upon.
    It takes a unique personality to fill this type of leadership role, which brings me to another point of leadership. One who understands the personalities of people around them adds strength to each position in the corporation. Understanding that specific personalities marry specific roles beautifully can bring a beneficial security. The leaders should also be able to understand timing. There are times to fight and lead, and then there are times to allow the younger generation that they have taught to take lead.
    Today’s business society has had various dynamic changes since Enron, and I am hoping ‘dictator fakeness’ that trickled down to management and hit every rung on the way to the bottom is on its way out. In my simple opinion, fallacy has no place in business for it risks far more than any care to admit. This is a capitalistic society, and having corporations without integrity and good leaders impacts our nation in hideous ways for many generations. This impacts our children and grandchildren when toy companies lack integrity, health and pharmaceutical corporations and I am certain you see my point.
    So, in conclusion, I would say a leader is a balance of the ability to delegate the dictated decisions that were made from a fully informed point of view that points to the clear vision that the leader has. In that action, control is established. In my opinion, a dictator is really someone who believes they can not really lead everyone, because they have to force the “leadership”. Whereas, a true leader walks that ability without “trying” or feel the need to “force” the truth.
    Thank you for this opportunity to share my thoughts on this matter. Have a great day.

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