Taking the Stage – A Theatrical Approach to Leadership Coaching

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Here at the-Coaching Blog-run by Gerard O’Donovan, our aim is to constantly bring value to those seeking to improve their lives. Therefore we have a policy of publishing articles and materials by guest authors whom we value and appreciate. Today’s guest author is Sam Chittenden (United Kingdom).
Leadership is enacted or performed.  Great communication, engagement and connection with people are vital. Leaders are required to create meaning for people, and to be able to tell compelling organisational stories. Emotional intelligence is also needed; along with the ability to integrate our inner and outer worlds.  Above all, creativity is a key success factor in today’s uncertain and complex environments.  At Different Development, we believe that lessons from the stage and acting training can bring much to leadership development.  Coaching, in particular, can provide a space where leaders can practice ‘doing themselves differently’ in order to develop new skills and behaviours.  We use approaches from the performing arts, and a rehearsal dynamic, to bring a new edge to 1-1 and group coaching settings.   
The Rehearsal Space
A good coaching relationship provides a safe space where a client can explore challenges, and look at some of the different choices they can make.  Often this will be a conversation about what it’s like ‘back there’.  Lots of coaching tools – such as the meta mirror – work by bringing ‘out there’ more into the room.  In my experience, the more ‘real’ we can make this experience, the more powerful the insight and the more likely any decisions and changes are to stick.  In our coaching approach, the link is made explicit by setting up the coaching environment as a rehearsal space where clients can try out different things for size and take risks they may not yet feel able to take in the work environment. The approach mimics some of the stress they may be experiencing at work, but with the ability to call time out.  It is a space where a client can switch between being ‘on stage’ and up in the balcony, reviewing their performance.  Our job is to provide the right mix of support and challenge to clients to make a shift.  The theatre metaphor brings a sense of play to the coaching and can help to reduce the natural resistance to doing something different.
A vital part of the rehearsal process is clarifying a character’s intention or motivation; how do you want people to feel?  What are the tangible qualities they will notice?  Coaching can help a client to get really clear about this, and then to act or behave on purpose.  Coaching provides a space where we can play “let’s pretend” to imagine or presuppose things that haven’t happened yet.  Pre-suppositional language is powerful in coaching and can feel more real when we act out our visions.  In 1-1 coaching, we can ‘up the ante’ by creating an imagined audience in the coaching space.  In our workshops we effectively do 1-1 work in front of an audience of fellow participants, creating a powerful blend of safety and challenge.
The Leadership Role
True leadership takes courage.  Leadership takes making bold and often unpopular decisions. It involves creating ground-breaking but tradition-defying ideas. It may require being repeatedly rejected before having success.  Director Dan Fauci (creator of The Mastery of Self Expression workshop) calls leadership “the empty chair in front of the room”.  Leadership requires us to show up, even when we don’t want to.  To lead effectively, we must be willing to be seen; to have our unique voice heard.  We need to understand the impact we have on others, above all in who and how we are rather than simply what we do.  A coaching partnership is like a mirror in which a client can see (and hear) themselves reflected.  In our leadership development and coaching, we use mirror and mask work along with typecasting to look at the characters people play as leaders.  We help clients to find an authentic way to ‘perform’ so that they can show up authentically as themselves and not simply as “The Leader”.
Creativity, Spontaneity & Improvisation
Leadership development can be a very intellectual practise, with lots of reflection about the right thing to do.  And yet leaders often have to make quick, instinctive decisions.  An effective leader must respond in the moment to what is happening.  Developing an ability to be spontaneous, especially under stress, can be a powerful resource.  In our coaching and workshops, we use improvisation techniques designed to help people notice what is happening right now, and get them into action.  Working in the now also enables us to let go of limiting stories about the past and false assumptions about the future.  We have to lead from where we are, using our current resources and people, not from where we’d like to be.  
It is argued that change is the biggest challenge in the workplace today and creativity is the most needed skill.  To create we have to be willing to take risks; to risk failure and to learn from this.  Developing improvisation skills can help to increase a client’s ability to step outside of their usual comfort zones.  All learning and creativity occurs on this edge.
One of the biggest blocks people come up against is the word ‘but’.  ‘But’ acts like a block to exploration and creativity.  In improvisation, ‘but’ is not allowed.  ‘Yes, but’ is replaced with ‘yes, and’.  This simple shift can have a huge impact on our conversations, both in the coaching room and in organisations.
Physical presence
Leadership is an embodied characteristic, attributed on the basis of our actions.  When we see a great acting performance, we are drawn above all to the actor’s stage presence.  Bringing an element of the theatrical into coaching is one way of working with this: helping a client to understand the impact of the posture and gestures on gravitas; practising new ways of being to help create a somatic memory; noticing the impact of physicality on mood and confidence.  Working in this way can also give the coach subtle clues to what a client may be feeling but not yet voicing.  The theatre metaphor can also involve exploring the idea of wardrobe and props, again in a way that is more playful than more traditional approaches to image consultancy.
Finding a Voice
Our voice is the place where language and the body meet; the vehicle through which we turn our internal thoughts into shared experience; through which we connect with others and evoke a response.  Our words have the ability to clarify, influence, persuade, motivate and inspire.  As leaders, our voices have a significant impact on image and long-term success.
In my work as a coach, I listen carefully to what people say and how they say it.  Together, we explore the significance of what they say, and I reflect back my experience of hearing them say it.  Their physical voice provides a window to their thoughts.  It is also an area that we can work on to build clarity and impact of communication; to develop resonance.  
We also use the abstract idea of ‘voice’ to explore a sense of self with clients.  Our ‘voice’ is closely related to our sense of identity.  In choosing the voice we use, for example as leaders, we are saying something about how we want to be seen.  Moreover, if this voice is to be heard as authentic, it must reflect the kind of person we are.  Playing with different ways of expressing themselves, of ‘doing themselves differently’ can give clients insight into aspects of their character that may have been underplayed, and can help them speak with greater integrity.  Broadening a client’s repertoire gives them greater choice in how they communicate. 
Telling the Truth
Acting is not about being someone different. It’s finding the similarity in what is apparently different, then finding myself in there.”Meryl Streep
Authenticity and integrity are qualities often cited about successful leaders, especially by their direct reports and other staff.  At the same time, all leadership behaviours and communications involve an element of performance, including the use of gesture, tone, and symbol to convey meaning.  However, the fact that leadership is performed doesn’t mean a leader isn’t telling the truth.  Even in acting, according to Sanford Meisner, an actor is never lying, but “behaving truthfully in imaginary circumstances”.  A great performance moves us because it connects with our emotions.  By exploiting some of an actor’s ability to bring more of who they are into the roles they play, we can help leaders find ways to be themselves in their leadership roles.
Emotional Connections
“Creating relationship is the heart of acting. It is basic. It is essential.” Michael Shurtleff
Leaders help to bring meaning to people’s work.  They tell powerful stories and give people a sense of belonging.  They engage us through our emotions.  In leadership development, we can learn much from the actor’s craft.  A core part of the actor’s job description is the taking of emotional risk, and their training helps actors to navigate their emotional landscapes with confidence.  In contrast, the learning journey of most leaders focuses primarily on our intellectual universes.
Leadership is a relational activity, and when there is conflict at work it usually relates to a lack of connection.  We work over time to build relationships and develop trust.  Yet an actor must create a sense of connection and trust with an audience of strangers.  Helping clients to build connection in the moment can circumvent some of the conditions we tend to set ourselves.  Explicit exercises such as the Meisner technique, and modelling great connection in the coaching conversation both have their place.
A core block to connecting with others (and to really hearing what they have to say) is our own self consciousness.  Using techniques that help clients get their attention off themselves (for example by focussing on their audience or on their breathing), we can help muffle the voices of inner critics.  With our attention off ourselves, we come across with greater humility too.
Creative coaching using theatre skills won’t be right for every client, but for those willing to engage with it, we have found it to be a powerful and joyful approach to helping people become the leaders they want to be.
Credit Source:
Sam Chittenden is a coach and facilitator with twenty years’ public sector leadership experience.  She runs the creative company Different Development, based in Brighton, UK http://www.differentdevelopment.co.uk. Sam is an actor and director, a published poet, and is currently writing a book about creative leadership.  She has a wide range of public speaking, media interview and performance experience. She leads the internationally renowned Mastery of Self Expression workshop (www.brighton-mastery.co.uk), and a variety of creative Masterclasses, including being a Leader.
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