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Acting the part

Last week I was running a webinar for a leadership development program. The participants were senior level, super-smart scientists located around the county. Before I got to the meat of the session, I said (as I always do) that I might use some familiar words, but maybe not in the way they generally used them. I hate jargon, so I don't use "in group" vocabulary of communications professionals or theatre people unless I am speaking to those groups. Still, I try to be careful about defining my terms, but there is always something that slips through. In this case, the word was ...

"Actor." Well, not the word, exactly, but the concept.  

I talk a lot about authenticity, and the importance of finding your own authentic leadership voice, And the key to that is discovering your own presence, which I liken to an actor's stage presence. I then go on to explain to the participants how they can each go about finding their own presence, which in turn helps them embrace their authentic leadership style. When I opened up the discussion for questions,  I got one I hadn't expected. The concept of an actor being authentic seemed confusing. Actors do the opposite, don't they? They're not really themselves, because they become other people, right?

That stopped me for a second. 

Somehow I had forgotten about this common misconception. I guess I mistook the popular, pervasive obsession with actors for at least a limited understanding of what they do. But it seems many fans of movie, TV, even stage actors don't really know how their favorites create such compelling illusions. The fact is, actors need a high degree of self-knowledge, self-confidence, and grounded-ness to be able to do what they do. It takes training and discipline. Actors do not shed their own skin and put on someone else's, no matter how much their PR myth-making machines might insist that they do. To have the presence of mind and body to be able to fully be yourself--yet fully portray another person--is the craft an actor works on for years, if not a lifetime. No matter how much magic they create in the audience's eyes, actors are not sorcerers who can switch themselves off and step into another life. If they were, they'd have a hard time coming back to their own lives and picking up the kids or doing the grocery shopping. Which I know they do. At least in New York! 

I felt a twinge of regret bursting the questioner's bubble. Like a parent coming clean about the Tooth Fairy. But the good news for non-actors is this: it's not really all that magical. You, too, can learn how to get your own brand of presence. And maybe a little bit of stardust!