Should Business Leaders Play the Hero or Be Authentic?

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Should Business Leaders Play the Hero or Be Authentic?

By Louis Carter

Myths, legends and Shakespearean plays point the way to great leadership, says Richard Olivier, founder of Olivier Mythodrama and a truly avant-garde thinker in the field of leadership development.

Olivier, who was once a director at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre before he began introducing groundbreaking ideas in corporate leadership development, uses myths and legends and familiar stories to challenge corporate executives to explore the great questions about leadership.

Which raises an interesting question about Olivier’s work: Does developing leaders through play-acting mythology and literature contradict the modern ideal of achieving authentic leadership?

Best Practice Institute recently honored Olivier with our 2013 Top Thought Leader Award. Olivier, 51, has spent the last several years exploring the insights Shakespeare has for the business world: the “inspiring” Henry V, the “influential” Julius Caesar, the “courageous” Macbeth.

In 2001, Olivier established Olivier Mythodrama. In a typical Mythodrama event, Olivier leads executives to role-play a scene from Shakespeare and then discuss how it all applies to the executives’ current workplace situations. At a recent Best Practice Institute event in London, Olivier led senior executives from Walmart, MasterCard, British Petroleum, GlaxoSmithKline and several other companies to role-play a scene from “The Tempest,” one of Shakespeare’s last plays. He then turned the experience into a discussion about inspiration, change, productivity, relationships and negotiation.

“We use the myth to provoke deeper inquiry into someone’s leadership practices,” Olivier recently told BPI. The goal, he said, is to point leaders to “a deeper level of inquiry” into motivation, behavior and identity.

“We very much use acting as a way to get people to step into their desired future,” he told us. “A good actor needs to be able to play more than one character. A good leader definitely needs to be able to embody more than one style of leadership.”

In a follow-up conversation with Richard after our recent London event, we asked Richard how Mythodrama’s role-playing approach correlates with the goal of authentic leadership. After all, authentic leadership is a big theme among corporate executives today. However, it is certainly not a new theme. It was Shakespeare’s Hamlet who said, “To thy own self be true.” Olivier Mythodrama materials promise “the development of authentic leaders.” But I wondered, how does play-acting lead to authenticity?

Here’s what Olivier told us. “Human beings learn by imitation. Babies learn to walk by looking at these big people around them. … The notion of looking at people’s images that are better than we are, more evolved in some way, more mature, and wanting to be like that, is an innate human impulse, that I think is behind a lot of learning.”

I think a key to understanding where Olivier is coming from is that phrase “innate human impulse.” Olivier Mythodrama’s approach to leadership development is based on the ideas of “archetypal psychology.” Archetypal psychology is the conception of psychologist James Hillman, whom Olivier has frequently credited as one of his mentors. Hillman taught that we all possess archetypes within us — myths and symbols that all humans instinctively recognize because they are part of our “collective unconscious.”

For example, in his leadership presentations, Olivier often talks about four archetypes: the good king (representing order), the medicine woman (representing change), the great mother (representing nurture), and the warrior (representing action).

As Richard has explained, “Archetypal learning is based on the theory of indirect learning, which says that human beings are coded to remember images, pictures and symbols a lot more clearly and for a lot longer than they will remember facts, figures and numbers. So we draw on that.”

The idea is to tap into these “coded images” to help us discover the leadership impulses that lie within. Olivier told us that leaders should “rehearse it, practice it, act it in.” But what he really believes, I think, is that those qualities are already present within, and that we need to search within to find them and “act them out.”

To Olivier, leadership development is not about imposing qualities of leadership on an individual, but about self-discovery to tap into the “collective images” of leadership already within. By activating what lies with us, we become better leaders — and more authentic leaders.

As I said, Richard’s thinking is avant garde. His philosophy has significant implications on modern leadership development practices, which still lean heavily on imparting learning in a classroom environment. Funny that cutting-edge 21st century leadership principles are being drawn from the 16th century Bard of Avon.

That led to one more question. Why Shakespeare? According to the philosophy of Mythodrama, these archetypes are universal and could be explored through a host of myths and legends and literature. So why Shakespeare?

Is it because Olivier is the son of Sir Laurence Olivier, the revered Shakespearean actor? Richard told us that he tried for a long time to steer clear of Shakespeare because of that very family connection. Finally, however, he gave in to the power of Shakespeare’s work.

Very much like our own times, in Shakespeare’s day the world was experiencing phenomenal change. It was the heyday of the Renaissance, when culture was advancing rapidly on all fronts — art, literature, science, politics. The genius of Shakespeare was his ability to grasp and interpret all of the changes that were taking place around him.

“He somehow could suck it all in and put it out there in a dramatic story,” Olivier told us.

After all, Shakespeare’s employer was the king of England, and his troupe was called The King’s Players. In his plays, Shakespeare explored leadership concepts on behalf of his patron, the most powerful leader of the world.

You could even say that Shakespeare was in the leadership development business.

— Louis Carter is founder and CEO of Best Practice Institute and the author of over 11 books, including “Best Practices in Leadership Development and Organization Change” and Change Champions. He is a highly regarded authority on learning, talent, leadership development and change.


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