Research Paper By Maaike Christie-Beekman
(Presentation, Presence & Performance Coach, Career & Artrepreneur Coach, NEW ZEALAND)
How the creative mindset and attitude of performing artists can support leaders in their development
Having my roots well established as a classical singer, performer, director and teacher of stagecraft, presence, presentation, and voice, I have always been interested in how the skills that are being used in performing arts apply to leaders. As I moved away from being a performer myself and started teaching, I quite quickly started working with leaders and managers to improve their presentation skills, use of voice and performance. However, there were times during these training sessions where the topic became bigger than just improving presentation skills or change of body language. A lot of the time it became the starting point of exploring an emotion, value, obstacle or belief that was holding somebody back in work and life. Experiential exercises from the performing arts became the starting point for sessions which helped clients to reflect, create awareness, change perspective, step out of their comfort zone and release judgment. As a result, the approach became more holistic with a focus on improving skills as well as self-exploration and personal and professional growth.
This research paper is going to explore how coaching can be used to support the development of leaders using the creative mindset and attitude of performing artists as a metaphor and inspiration. I will be looking at how it can support changing perspectives, inspire change, taking ownership of development, and increase abilities and creativity to find solutions to real-life problems.
Leadership and the development of soft skills
In leadership development, I would like to focus solely on the improvement of soft skills. These are skills such as communication, interpersonal, influencing, problem solving, resilience, performance, time-management, motivation skills.
These skills as everybody acknowledges are vital if you want to be an influential and charismatic leader. Yet, they are much harder to tackle than improving technical skills. Why is that? One of the reasons is that they are very closely related to who we are as a person; our behavior, emotion, intention, and attitude. Technical skills are one step removed from who we are, so it is easier to change, adjust and even receive feedback and apply it. Soft skills are another matter: the divide between our actions and ourselves is less clear and therefore changing something such as the way we move or speak becomes a very personal matter and touches us on a much deeper level.
Another challenge leaders face when addressing the improvement of soft skills is a lack of clarity of what soft skills actually needs to be worked on. There might be feedback that a leader lacks charisma and because of this is given the training to improve body language and presence. Yet, what this person really would need is being able to deal with the performance anxiety that comes when they need to think on their feet.
Or a leader receives feedback that s/he comes across as intimidating and is advised to be less direct. Yet, what s/he actually needs is awareness of how body language and mirroring can help build a safe environment for others to express themselves.
Because of this lack of clarity, this type of feedback can rock somebody to their core; they don’t recognize themselves in the feedback and it can even go against their own values and what they stand for.
As both points make clear, the improvement of soft skills comes with extra challenges and when working on improving soft skills we need to ensure that this is done in a safe and supportive environment and with clarity and constructive feedback.
Performing artists and the development of soft skills
There is a group of professionals who are approaching these soft skills as if they are technical skills. They are being trained to have a strong awareness of their behavior, intention, attitude, and emotions. They are constantly pushing themselves to step out of their comfort zone by putting themselves under constant scrutiny and use this feedback to explore how they can improve. These are the performing artists; actors, singers, dancers, and stage performers.
They are constantly working to improve their communication, influencing, problem-solving, resilience, performance and time management skills and aim to make them as effective and real as possible. They use tools such as improvisation, presence, stagecraft, movement, body language and use of voice to improve these skills.
The successful performing artist takes it even a step further; s/he creates a mindset that helps him/her to deal with the pressures and builds his/her resilience.
The reality of a performing artist:
- Being under constant scrutiny is part of life and development
- You need to be comfortable with eyes on you
- Criticism and feedback is how you are being taught and how you learn
- Obstacles are there to overcome and it is your job to constantly find a way through or around them
- Vulnerability is key, otherwise, you’re boring; you need to be real & authentic
- Improvisation is constantly present
- Performance under pressure is the norm
- You need to be able to make true and real connections with the story, emotion, colleagues, audience
- You learn through experimentation while releasing judgment
- You need to be ready on opening night, this date is not flexible, and you need to reproduce the same standard time after time
- You are an ensemble where you are constantly listening and observing and are in the service of something bigger than you.
- You find meaning in repetition; even if it is boring to sing the same scales every day, you find meaning in it and are mindful in your approach, acknowledging that this is the only way to perfect your skill
The above points make clear that it is the mindset and approach of the performing artists that help them to improve their soft skills and deal with the pressures they are facing.
Influence of performing arts in the development of Leaders
As Zeljko Katusin writes in his article: Art has existed since the beginning of civilization and is the way for individuals and groups to express feelings and thoughts, it helps others experience and interpret things, and represents our experiences of life.
On the other side, he says, leadership is an integral part of life and is an ‘outgrowth of the need to organize’. Organizing ourselves has improved our chances of survival. Growth and leadership have become an important part of this organizing behavior.
So how do the two connect? Katusin says: both disciplines depend on creativity for survival and progression. As Albert Einstein says: ‘we cannot solve today’s problems with the same way of thinking used to create the problem’; both disciplines need the ability of creative analyses of real-life situations, making sense of the complexity, making decisions and providing (others with) action. It asks for critical thinking as well as using your senses and intuition, understanding of the environment and with that come to better decisions and actions.
As the arts have a strong focus on captivating people by using sensory-emotional aspects of the human experience, there is an opportunity for leaders to use this not only in their approach to thinking differently about how to engage with others but also to become more aware of their own senses, intuition, and emotions.
Using performing arts as a tool in the development of leaders shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for traditional leadership development, but it can create transformative insights about self and about the interaction with others.
In Michael Brenner’s research, he writes that arts-based learning has fostered positive changes in people’s beliefs about leadership, risk-taking, ambiguity, collaboration, and self-image. Brenner gives the following reasons for these positive changes:
- The arts tap into our emotions in ways that defy rationality, often leading to a heightened sense of self-awareness and introspection.
- Artists and leaders have more in common than one might think, which allows for intriguing and fruitful associations to be made between the two disciplines.
- By altering our perceptions, art can peel away illusion and assumptions to reveal the truth at the heart of an issue or subject.
- Engaging in the creative process of making art can require the application of cognitive, interpersonal, and problem-solving skills that are essential for business success.
- Art can simplify the complex, which leads to previously unseen or unimagined solutions to intractable problems.
Examples of where performing arts have been supporting leaders in their self-awareness and effectiveness:
When using the performing arts in supporting leaders in their self-awareness and effectiveness, it can be applied in two ways. Firstly using and analyzing the techniques and skills used in performing arts to express and reflect inner thoughts and feelings. The other way is by practicing the techniques and skills through experiential training. Below are a few examples of how both ways are being used in leadership training.
Comparing leadership to conducting and orchestra:
Atik (1994) has done a study on the leadership style of successful conductors and has identified this as transformational leadership and is using this approach to train leaders. Transformational leadership is a theory of leadership where a leader works with teams to identify needed change, creating a vision to guide the change through inspiration and executing the change in tandem with committed members of the group. The creation of an interactive and dynamic relationship between orchestra and conductor is at the heart of the role of a conductor. For instance, the power of the baton is never settled ultimately but is a constant subject of negotiation. Just imagine holding a baton in front of a group of people. How do you make a group of 80 people sound as one, and with that simple movement of a downbeat also express how you want it to sound? A conductor is actually nothing without the orchestra, which is a humbling thought.
Very quickly it becomes clear that the relationship between conductor and orchestra is a two-way process where each member (including the conductor) is carefully observing and listening, where the conductor brings his/her interpretation, but leaves freedom for the orchestra to build on this interpretation and trusts the musicality of individuals.
Using improvisation to develop leadership skills:
If you want to lead others through change, you must be able to navigate yourself effectively through change. Today’s leaders need to be open to new ideas, have flexibility in thought and action, take risks, work within ambiguity and uncertainty and still confidently move forward and express themselves with conviction – just like improvisers. Both have to make spur of the moment decisions, synthesize information, make others look good, see different perspectives, create and innovate, make relevant connections and serve the good of the whole.
With improvisation based training, leaders learn how to use their own inventiveness, putting ideas out there, take risks and tolerate mistakes. It is a tool to unleash the inner creative leadership abilities and helps enhance performance and awareness of skills such as presence, thinking on your feet, resourcefulness, resilience, and influence.
Acting training for leaders:
Leaders have to present and communicate their ideas, thoughts, proposals, and vision with conviction, presence and meaning to ensure their audience not only understands the message but also is inspired by both the delivery and content. If a presenter doesn’t understand, relate or is not emotionally inspired by what s/he is talking about, motivating and inspiring others may be very difficult.
An actor is constantly challenged to – even in an imagined world – appear to be real in all actions, reactions, and expressions. Every word, use of voice, gesture, the holding of posture, expression of emotion needs to come across as truthful and so all actions and expressions are under scrutiny and analyzed to perfect elements such as timing, intensity, and duration.
And this is an important realization for presenters and leaders. As John Sudol says: “If an action or reaction starts too soon or too late, it will either appear to be a lie or have a different meaning. If the emotional intensity is too strong or too weak, we will be unsure of how this leader really feels if s/he feels anything at all.”
Acting training is used to help leaders become more impactful, expressive and transparent. It will encourage leaders, for instance, to be more transparent and express the meaning behind the words more appropriately which helps the listener to truly connect with not only the message but also the person.
Application to the coaching practice
So how can this approach support leaders in the coaching setting?
As mentioned earlier, it can create transformative insights about self and about the interaction with others. In my opinion, there are a number of areas where this can help a client to grow and change the perspective on themselves, others and situations:
- Creating Awareness
- Creative Mindset
- Finding meaning
- Moving Boundaries
Awareness of self; awareness of how you interact and the impact it has; awareness of your emotions, feelings, and thoughts; awareness of your place in the world and how you connect with it; awareness of how you learn and deal with obstacles; awareness of others; the performing artist uses all these aspects of awareness to perfect their skills, find meaning and be impactful.
The awareness performing artists create for themselves is multi-layered, dynamic and can create transformative insights. The way an artist uses curiosity, creative analyses, and sensory and emotional observations, can be applied by a coach to inspire their client to create awareness. It can invite the client to look at themselves through curiosity, change the perspective of how they observe, and inspire the client to be more creative in the questions they ask themselves to create their own awareness.
Helping clients to move towards a growth mindset can be strengthened by directing them towards a more creative approach to obstacles, change, and setbacks. As improvisation asks you to be open to new ideas, be flexible in thought and action, willing to take risks, and become comfortable to work within ambiguity and uncertainty, a coach can create a space where the client can experiment with this approach.
The coaching space can become a ‘lab’; a non-judgmental space where experimentation is the way we create clarity, change, and action. The client can try out new ideas, emotions, and actions and see if it ‘fits’ with who they want to be. One of the beliefs in improvisation is that there is no such thing as mistakes, only an opportunity to create something out of it. The creative mindset will give the client the opportunity to take the judgment out of failure and allow the element of play when experimenting and be open to truly take risks, observe, analyze and use all this information to try a new improved version.
As a performing artist is always being encouraged to be real and clear with their intent, even when they are representing an imagined world, they are constantly looking further than just the surface. This implies that the artist needs to make an emotional connection, have clarity of intent and be completely committed to what they are doing.
When a coach encourages a client to, as a performing artist, find meaning, the client will be able to be more successful in making changes because they feel a stronger attachment and motivation to do so. By asking powerful questions, but also inviting the client to bring their awareness to their behavior, physical responses, and sensory world, the client will get a stronger connection with their own intentions and meaning.
A performing artist is constantly working towards improving their skills, in order to do this, they are constantly trying to overcome obstacles. The way towards growth is by moving their boundaries, and playing on the fringe of their comfort zone becomes a space of familiarity and comfort. In order to do this, artists have challenged their limiting beliefs, learned through repetition and put themselves in situations where they have to perform under pressure.
The coach can create a safe space where the client can explore their boundaries. The coaching session becomes the playground where tools such as roleplay and visualization help the client to learn how to play on the fringe of their comfort zone. By adding the element of repetition, the client will feel more and more confident to move their own boundaries outside of the coaching space.
As we are living in an age where we are getting more and more connected, organizations become more horizontal in their structure, barriers are being broken down, audiences are looking for charismatic leaders and change is a constant factor that needs an agile approach, leaders of the future need to have the ability to deal with all these forces. A creative mindset and attitude are vital to managing these changes with flexibility, resilience, and confidence.
The connection between leadership and performing arts is strong and I am excited to see in how many different and creative ways these connections are being used for training and development purposes – in both directions!
When I started my coaching journey, I never thought to use my background in the performing arts as a tool in my coaching process. This research paper has given me the confidence and proof that honoring my background and blending it in my coaching will create a more powerful experience for my clients.
“The Conductor and the Orchestra” – Yaakov Atik, 1994
“Performing” the Managerial Project: Aesthetic and Artistic Approaches to Critical Management Studies – Dr. Brigitte Biehl-Missal
Beyond the Score: Music as Performance – Nicholas Cook