Why leadership and entrepreneurship training can learn from acting training

November 10, 2015 by Joshua
in Art, Education, Exercises, Leadership

Longtime readers know a big inspiration for how I teach leadership and entrepreneurship is how we teach acting, based on the self-awareness, emotional expression, mutual support, and ability to perform I see in great actors. Leaders and entrepreneurs can use many of the same skills, and much of my teaching practice involves using what works in teaching acting for teaching leadership and entrepreneurship, with appropriate changes.

To learn the training in more depth, I trained in one style of acting, called Meisner Technique after its originator, Sandy Meisner, and was rereading a book by the guy who founded the school where I trained, who studied and worked with Sandy for decades, Bill Esper. The following passage illuminates a lot about learning leadership and entrepreneurship, though it’s about acting. I’ll quote Bill, then translate it into leadership and entrepreneurship terms to illustrate the value of learning how to teach it from teaching acting—a more mature field.

From The Actor’s Art and Craft by William Esper and Damon DiMarco:

“Let me play devil’s advocate. There are lots of acting teachers out there. What have you got to say that’s so special?”

Bill nods. “These days people who call themselves acting teachers do so because they offer helpful hints and anecdotes to performers who are desperate for real instruction. I don’t consider that teaching. The way I see it, very few teachers have done what Lee Strasberg and Sandy [Meisner] did; very few teachers have developed a concrete, step-by-step approach to training a truly creative actor—a system that takes an artist as raw material and builds the skills necessary for him to excel at his art from the ground up.

“Craft—technique, if you will—is vitally important to art, but so many people don’t understand it. The biggest misconception I hear about acting technique is that it restricts the artist’s talent. Ridiculous! Ultimately technique does not constrain the artist’s instincts; it frees them.”

“How does it apply to Meisner Technique?”

“Learning to act is very much like building a house. First you have to pick a spot to build and clear the land. Then you must dig a good foundation and shore it up against the elements. These are the very first stages; perhaps they’re also the most important stages. If the foundation of a house isn’t properly laid, the entire structure will eventually collapse under its own weight during the first good wind. In Meisner Technique, we uphold this analogy by practicing a regimen of exercises which create foundation, a stable floor upon which we build our craft.”

“You generally work with actors over a two-year period,” I say. “In terms of this training, how do you lay the foundation?”

“Utilizing the Meisner approach,” Bill says, “my students spend the entire first year of their training developing themselves into truthful acting instruments. If you like, you could say that this first year is all about training the actor in the basic skills required for professional acting.”

“I’ll play devil’s advocate again,” I say. “A lot of acting schools consider the basic skills for acting to be voice, speech, and movement. What do you believe?”

Bill waves his hand. “Voice, speech, and movement are external skills. Very important to acting, yes. But not so important that you study them to the neglect of an actor’s inner life—his emotional core. An actor without an emotional core is like a cardboard cutout of a human being.

“These days the most common piece of advice you hear people telling a young actor is ‘Be yourself.’ Of course, this leads the actor to ask the next, inevitable question: ‘Who am I?’ The way I see it, until an actor learns to work from the core of his own truth, all the voice speech, and movement training in the world will only succeed in creating a highly skilled puppet. I don’t want to train automatons. I want to develop actors who are unique! Who are alive!”

“Painters make their art from brushes, canvas, and hues. Sculptors work in clay and bronze, stone, and plaster. Writers use pens and paper—lately they use computers. Musicians have their instruments. But what does an actor use to create his art? Some would say nothing, but this isn’t true. In fact, the actor has the most complicated instrument of all—himself! His experiences, his imagination, his sensitivity. His physical body and his observations. Everything that makes up the sum total of a person’s humanity is part of the actor’s instrument. As Eleonora Duse once said, ‘All that I have to offer as an artist is the revelation of my soul.”

[…]

“One of the reasons I believe so strongly that Meisner’s technique is the best approach to training actors is that the technique can be applied to any challenge an actor faces. It develops actors who can create performances of genuine quality in any medium.”

Translated into leadership and entrepreneurship terms, also editing for brevity and imagining a future time after the world has adopted my technique to teach them through basic exercises:

“Let me play devil’s advocate. There are lots of people teaching leadership and entrepreneurship. What do you have that’s so special?”

Bill nods. “These days people say they teach leadership or entrepreneurship because they offer helpful hints and anecdotes to aspiring students desperate for instruction. I don’t consider that teaching. Few teachers have done what Joshua Spodek did—developing a concrete, step-by-step approach to training an effective leader or entrepreneur—a system that takes an aspiring student raw and builds the skills necessary to excel at his art from the ground up.

“Craft—technique—is vitally important, but few people understand it. The biggest misconception I hear about leadership or entrepreneurial technique is that it restricts the leader’s or entrepreneur’s genuineness or authenticity. Ridiculous! Technique does not constrain their instincts; it frees them.”

“How does it apply to Spodek’s Technique?”

“Learning to lead or take initiative is like building a house. First you have to pick a spot to build and clear the land, then dig a good foundation and shore it against the elements. These are the first stages; perhaps also the most important. If the foundation isn’t properly laid, the structure will collapse under its weight during the first good wind. Spodek’s Technique upholds this analogy with a regimen of exercises which create foundation, a stable floor on which we build our craft.

“You generally work with actors over a two-year period,” I say. “How do you lay the foundation?”

“Using Spodek’s approach,” Bill says, “my students spend the entire first year of their training developing themselves into truthful instruments to lead or take initiative. You could say that this first year trains the actor in the basic skills required for professional leadership or entrepreneurship.”

“I’ll play devil’s advocate again,” I say. “A lot of schools consider the basic skills for leading to be voice, speech, and business basics. What do you believe?”

Bill waves his hand. “Voice, speech, and business basics are external skills. Important to leadership and entrepreneurship, yes. But not so important that you study them to the neglect of a leader’s or entrepreneur’s inner life—his emotional core. An leader or entrepreneur without an emotional core is like a cardboard cutout of a human.

“These days the most common advice you hear people telling an aspiring leader or entrepreneur is ‘Be yourself.’ Of course, this leads the student to ask: ‘Who am I?’ Until he learns to work from the core of his truth, all the voice speech, and basic business training in the world will only create a highly skilled puppet. I don’t want to train automatons. I want to develop leaders and entrepreneurs who are unique! Who are alive!”

“Painters make their art from brushes, canvas, and hues. Sculptors work in clay and bronze, stone, and plaster. Writers use pens and paper—lately computers. Musicians have their instruments. But what does a leader or entrepreneur use? Some would say nothing, but I disagree. The leader and entrepreneur has the most complicated instrument—himself! His experiences, his imagination, his sensitivity. His physical body and his observations. Everything that makes up a person’s humanity is part of the leader’s and entrepreneur’s instrument. As Eleonora Duse said, ‘All that I have to offer as a leader and entrepreneru is the revelation of my soul.

[…]

“One of the reasons I believe so strongly that Spodek’s technique is the best approach to training leaders and entrepreneurs is that a they can apply the technique to any challenge. It develops leaders and entrepreneurs who can lead teams to meaningful success in any field.”

I recommend acting classes for aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs, though I recommend my courses first to get most of the value of acting classes without all of what’s unnecessary for business.

Learn to make Meaningful Connections

with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.

Including

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  • Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
  • An excerpt from my book

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