A clash between our contemporary expectations and our evolved psychological preferences inevitably puts leaders in a bind, causing cognitive dissonance and distress. The solution is viewing leadership as a performance, which has implications for how leaders comprehend their role, how they see themselves, and how they learn and grow.
Almost all of my coaching clients are in prominent leadership roles, and a consistent theme in my work with them is addressing the stress or discomfort they feel when fulfilling certain aspects of their role. For some this occurs in formal settings before an audience--addressing their employees at an all-hands, giving a keynote address at a conference, or pitching investors in a boardroom. For others it happens in more spontaneous interactions--closing a prospect or a potential employee, delivering critical feedback to a report, or facilitating a conflict among members of their team. Whatever the context, at one time or another most leaders have the sense of being observed and assessed on the basis of their ability to fulfill a wide range of expectations, which can trigger uncomfortable emotions ranging from mild self-consciousness to a deeper sense of inadequacy. Before considering how to address these concerns, let’s explore their origins.
Contemporary leaders are constantly at risk of being caught in a trap. They must operate within two co-existing yet conflicting frames of reference: our outwardly professed preference for equality and effort, and, alternatively, our often unstated--at times subconscious--preference for hierarchy and innate ability. We say we want egalitarianism, flat organizations, and post-heroic leadership. We also claim to value people whose achievements are the result of striving and hard work over those with inborn talents. These sincere desires are important accomplishments of the modern era, reflecting centuries of collective effort to establish more a more just and enlightened social order in which we organize ourselves and assess our achievements on the basis of rational principles. And yet research suggests that preferences for hierarchy and innate ability are deeply rooted in our evolutionary psychology. Our modern preference for egalitarian, effortful leadership is self-evident, but a better understanding of our historical preference for hierarchical, natural leadership requires a brief discussion of this research.
In Organizational Preferences and Their Consequences, a chapter in the 2010 Handbook of Social Psychology, Stanford professors Deborah Gruenfeld and Larissa Tiedens (now president of Scripps College) make the case that hierarchy is inevitable:
Despite the fact that people do not acknowledge a preference for hierarchy, such a preference can be inferred from behavioral patterns… The strongest piece of evidence is simply the regularity with which this form of organization is produced… When scholars attempt to find an organization that is not characterized by hierarchy, they cannot… [E]ven in modern American business settings, in which hierarchical structures and cultures are not at all in favor, people consistently choose hierarchy over its less preferable alternatives… In sum, the production of hierarchy is a central and omnipresent component of organizing… Hierarchies thus become unavoidable even when people seek greater equality.
Gruenfeld and Tiedens aren’t justifying or rationalizing hierarchy, and they cite a complex set of both positive and negative effects that result from hierarchical structures in organizational life, but they clearly demonstrate its persistence as an organizing principle, despite being “not at all in favor" in the current cultural climate.
In 2002 Malcolm Gladwell addressed the annual convention of the American Psychological Association and proposed that humans have a “naturalness bias,” a preference for abilities and talents that we perceive as innate over those that appear to derive from effort and experience. As described by Bridget Murray in the APA Monitor, Gladwell noted that "On some fundamental level we believe that the closer something is to its original state, the less altered or adulterated it is, the more desirable it is." He invited the assembled researchers to explore this concept further, and one result was Naturals and Strivers: Preferences and Beliefs About Sources of Achievement, a 2011 paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology by Harvard psychologists Chia-Jung Tsay and Mahzarin Banaji:
Our findings show that given identical performances, expert participants preferred the natural, contradicting their expressed beliefs. This contradiction highlights the hidden nature of the naturalness bias, at least in a culture such as the contemporary American society, where conflicting messages about the relative importance of inborn versus learned achievement are present.
Tsay followed up on this concept in Privileging Naturals Over Strivers: The Cost of the Naturalness Bias, a 2015 paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin:
[U]pon reading about entrepreneurs with equivalent levels of achievement and hearing identical business proposals, participants judged the natural as more talented, more likely to succeed, and more hirable… This study demonstrates a preference for the natural even in a domain in which it is widely believed that striving and hard work are responsible for success… [A preference for] naturalness may be a built-in bias from our evolutionary past that sneaks into decisions even in the presence of a genuine and conscious belief in the importance of striving.
Note the parallel with Gruenfeld and Tiedens’ perspective on hierarchy: Even as we profess a preference for strivers, we exhibit a preference for naturals.
Leadership as Performance
The dynamics described above pose a tremendous challenge for contemporary leaders, who must find a way to fulfill contradictory sets of expectations in both of these domains. Our modern consciousness wants leaders who acknowledge and respect our desire for equal treatment and who have earned their position by virtue of hard work and effortful striving. At the same time our atavistic psychology wants leaders who act authoritatively from atop a hierarchical structure and who possess an inborn talent for charismatic command.
The inherent contradiction within these desires inevitably creates cognitive dissonance for today’s leaders, a state that is heightened for those who lack experience or who operate in environments where these tensions are particularly acute (such as early-stage technology companies, which often have strongly egalitarian cultures.) Cognitive dissonance—the experience of holding two contradictory beliefs, or of taking action in opposition to a sincerely held belief—is deeply distressing for human beings, and yet it is an entirely predictable by-product of our current attitudes toward leadership. It’s no wonder that so many leaders I see in my coaching practice often wrestle with the feelings of self-consciousness and inadequacy that I describe above. So what can leaders do? If such distressing responses are unavoidable at times, how can leaders manage them more effectively? The key is viewing leadership as a performance, which has implications for how leaders comprehend their role, how they see themselves, and how leaders learn and grow.
Leaders’ View of Their Role
Viewing leadership as a type of performance allows leaders to manage the expectations placed upon them more effectively, and to see aspects of their role more clearly. Consider the range of activities that we commonly identify as “performances”: an actor’s portrayal of a character, an athlete’s actions in a competition, a musician’s interpretation of a song. All of these activities occur within a set of conventions, and yet they also involve substantial fluidity and improvisation. The best performers navigate these conventions dynamically, at times adhering to expected norms, and at other times challenging or even subverting them.
By viewing leadership as a performance, leaders can fulfill expectations while adapting to the needs of the moment. Certain situations require a more egalitarian approach, while others require greater decisiveness or authoritative action. At certain moments leaders should emphasize their effortful striving, while at others they should highlight their innate abilities. To be clear, when such flexibility goes beyond appropriate limits, leaders lose influence by appearing disingenuous, and I’m not suggesting that leaders should act inauthentically or in opposition to their beliefs. Great leadership, like any great performance, requires a heightened sense of awareness regarding when conventions should be followed and when they should be resisted.
A performance also implies the presence of an audience, and it’s essential for leaders to recognize that they are being observed at all times—not just in those circumstances when they’re literally under a spotlight before a crowd, but in every single interaction with anyone who is subject to their leadership. An advantage enjoyed by the performers noted above is the clearly defined boundary distinguishing the public arena from the privacy of backstage or the locker room. But leadership performances don’t end when the keynote address is finished or the meeting is concluded—those events merely signify a transition into a subsequent stage of the performance before a different audience.
This can come as a surprise to first-time leaders or those new to a prominent position, which is problematic in several ways. The surprise a leader feels when they realize that they’re actually still performing even (and especially) when they thought they were off duty is a common source of distress and fatigue, and it’s essential for leaders to recognize that their performance begins the moment they leave home and doesn’t end until they return. Such intensive demands are depleting, and leaders must establish sufficiently private spaces and relationships within which they are free from concerns about meeting expectations or acting according to established convention.
Leaders’ View of Themselves
Viewing leadership as a performance also allows leaders to see themselves in different and helpful ways. A performer adopts the appropriate persona necessary to fulfill the requirements of the performance. Actors, athletes, and musicians all step into a persona they’ve crafted to fit the needs of their particular venue, and they’re well aware that their individual identity transcends that persona. Steven Pressfield describes this aptly in his 2002 book The War of Art in a discussion of what it means to “be a professional”:
The pro stands at one remove from her instrument—meaning her person, her body, her voice, her talent—the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological being she uses in her work… The professional identifies with consciousness and her will, not with the matter that her consciousness and will manipulate to serve her art. Does Madonna walk around the house in cone bras and…bustiers? She’s too busy planning D-Day. Madonna does not identify with “Madonna.” Madonna employs “Madonna.”
Similarly, a leader must be able to adopt the (multiple and various) personas that are necessary to allow them to successfully deliver the (multiple and various) performances that are required of them. Addressing the issues raised above, an effective leader must cultivate both an egalitarian persona and a hierarchical persona, a persona that accentuates their hard work as well as a persona that underscores their natural talents.
Again, I’m not suggesting that leaders should act inauthentically. A persona implies a gap between our inner self and the constructed self that we present to the world, and leaders must pay close attention to the size of that gap. When it’s too large, leaders are rightly perceived as inauthentic and lose influence. And when that gap is too small, leaders can be insufficiently attuned to the needs of the situation, or can find themselves depleted by the demands of the role.
How Leaders Learn and Grow
A further benefit of viewing leadership as a performance is its positive impact on leaders’ ability to learn and grow, specifically by providing an alternative perspective on the stress and discomfort experienced by leaders when fulfilling certain aspects of their role. As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, almost all of my clients experience these unpleasant emotions at one time or another in their capacity as leaders. An unfortunate conclusion that many leaders draw from this response is, “I’m not good at this particular leadership task,” or, even worse, “I’m not a good leader.” This response is rooted in a set of interlocking dynamics: the naturalness bias discussed above, a related mindset that views talent as fixed and immutable, and a common but misguided understanding of authenticity.
One of the pernicious effects of the naturalness bias is overemphasizing the value of innate ability while downplaying the importance of persistent effort. As I note above, in certain circumstances leaders benefit by highlighting their inherent talents, but leaders also need to realize that they themselves are subject to the naturalness bias when assessing their own capabilities. When leaders experience stress or discomfort, it’s essential to avoid falling prey to this bias and to bear in mind the substantial body of research that indicates the importance of effortful striving. One of the most influential papers in this field is The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, published by an international team of psychologists in 1993, which argues that,
Individual differences, even among elite performers, are closely related to assessed amounts of deliberate practice. Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years.
A dynamic closely related to the naturalness bias is the concept of “mindset,” popularized by the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck. According to Dweck’s research, we tend toward one of two different perspectives on the nature of our talents and abilities, and these mindsets have a significant effect on our appetite for risk and our response to setbacks. In a “fixed mindset” we regard our talents as inborn and immutable qualities, while in a “growth mindset” we see our talents as qualities that can be cultivated and enhanced through active effort. Dweck’s work suggests that merely becoming aware of this distinction can help us adopt a growth mindset, and when we do we’re more risk-tolerant, less likely to be distressed by difficulties, and more likely to persist in the face of resistance.
Finally, our view on the nature of authenticity can play an important role in this context. One commonly-held perspective is that our authentic self is something that exists fully formed within us, and we discover its nature through experiences that feel more (or less) natural to us. We equate authenticity with comfort, and so if something makes us feel uncomfortable or self-conscious, then it is de facto inauthentic, which means we need not persist at it (or are relieved of our responsibility to try). But an alternative view is that our authentic self is something that we create over time, and we play an active role in its development through experiences that may feel uncomfortable or unnatural, particularly at first. As INSEAD professor of organizational behavior Herminia Ibarra wrote in The Authenticity Paradox in 2015,
Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what's comfortable... By viewing ourselves as works-in-progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations' changing needs. That takes courage, because learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors that can make us feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous. But the only way to avoid being pigeonholed and ultimately become better leaders is to do the things that a rigidly authentic sense of self would keep us from doing.
Ultimately, viewing leadership as a performance allows us to see it as something we do, not something we are, and when leaders can distinguish between their behavior and their identity, it becomes much easier to learn and grow by avoiding the naturalness bias, cultivating a growth mindset, and adopting a definition of authenticity that encourages them to get out of their comfort zone.
I realize that this view of leadership as performance could be interpreted to mean that I don’t value authenticity, or, worse, as a license to act disingenuously. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I’ve tried to insure that my meaning is clear throughout. That said, I find it useful to close with an excerpt from the work of Rob Goffee, professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, and Gareth Jones, a fellow at LBS and a visiting professor at several other business schools, who’ve had a major influence on my perspective on leadership. In their 2006 book Why Should Anyone Be Led by You? What It Takes to Be an Authentic Leader, they define three elements of authenticity for leaders:
First, authentic leaders display a consistency between words and deeds. [Emphasis original] Leaders who do what they say—who practice what they preach—are more likely seen as “genuine” and therefore authentic… The second element of authentic leadership is the capacity to display coherence in role performances. In other words, despite the unavoidable need to play different roles at different times for different audiences, authentic leaders communicate a consistent underlying thread. They display a “real self” that holds these separate performances together. Closely linked to this is the third and final element. Authentic leadership involves a kind of comfort with self… This is the internal source from which consistency of role performance is drawn.
I firmly agree with Goffee and Jones’ emphasis on consistency, coherence, and comfort with self—and I see all of these elements as entirely in accordance with a view of leadership as performance.
Thanks to Bob Sutton, whose 2014 essay “Hierarchy is Good. Hierarchy is Essential. And Less Isn’t Always Better,” led me to the work of Gruenfeld and Tiedens and informed my perspective on it.
Photo by Chris H. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.