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Good Leaders, Good Actors

Good leaders need to be proficient in whats called situational leadership. Plain and simple, situational leadership means having the skills and understanding to assess the scenario youre facing and manage it with the right leadership style.

by Lee Froschheiser
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Using "Siutational Leadership" To Manage Any Challenge With the Right Leadership Style

On June 5, 1944, just hours before D-Day was to begin, General Dwight Eisenhower paid a visit to the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne. He walked among the men, shaking their hands, patting them on their backs, cracking jokes and boosting morale. In his pocket, however, he carried a prepared message in which he took full responsibility for the mission’s possible failure. He expected the casualty rate to climb as high as 70 percent, yet the decision to move forward with the plan had been made. Late that evening, the future president saluted each plane as it roared off the runway. Then he cried. Eisenhower knew that so many of those brave soldiers, whom he’d praised and pumped up just hours earlier, would never return. At that very moment in time, a sacrifice was in the making.

This story provides a classic example of how good leaders must be good actors; specifically, they must be proficient in what’s called “situational leadership.” Plain and simple, situational leadership means having the skills and understanding to assess the scenario you’re facing and manage it with the right leadership style. Considering that there are three basic types of leadership—authoritative, participative and hands-on—a good leader acts in the moment, choosing the best style for the challenge at hand.

Situational leaders are good actors because they know how to adapt their leadership style. They can mask fear, panic and worry with a great sense of self-confidence both in themselves as well as those they must inspire and motivate. However, to assume the role, they must become great believers in whatever leadership approach they’ve chosen, and they must exude extreme self-confidence as they reflect on that decision.

Like good actors, good leaders “become” the character in that moment, and their success depends greatly on the purity of their belief. If they don’t believe in what they are doing and the type of leadership role they’ve adopted, they’ll come across as a fake. Ironic but true, good acting is one of the strategies good leaders use to communicate with credibility, build trust among their people and motivate others. Had Eisenhower cried in front of the troops that fateful summer day, or shared the message in his pocket, the consequences of D-Day could have been quite different. Instead, he put on his poker face, saving his tears for a more private, appropriate moment.

Good leaders and good actors aren’t simply born

If you are in the camp that believes good leaders are made, not simply born, it’s important to note that situational leaders possess key characteristics that are, essentially, the qualities of a great leader. In addition to confidence, there are 11 other attributes of leadership, including clear vision, integrity, empathy, sense of humor, humility, passion, courage, style and the ability to recognize potential in others, develop trust and encourage excellence. Some of these attributes might be innate, but many good leaders find they must develop at least some of these qualities. Doing so comes with time, experience, failure, success, coaching and mentoring, and a genuine desire to develop leadership qualities.

For instance, while there’s nothing wrong with reading books on the subject of leadership, consider reading books about great leaders or making a list of effective qualities in the leaders you know personally. Adopt some of their ways, test them out and see what works. While good leaders actively study and prepare for their roles as such, they also make great strides by acquiring the necessary experience (e.g., climbing the chain of command and taking on greater leadership responsibilities).

Coaching and mentoring clearly support leadership growth, but good leaders and good actors must also develop a strong sense of self-awareness. Understanding shortcomings and strengths provides a launch pad for improvement and, hopefully, excellence. In becoming a good leader, or a good actor, it’s likely that you’ll have to work on issues around “emotional intelligence.” Use 360-degree evaluation to discover how effective your leadership style is and, notably, how you communicate. Good actors know that when it comes to delivering a message, 7 percent of it is the content of the message itself, 38 percent is your tone of voice and 55 percent is about the visual presentation, which includes a self-confident persona. Therefore, how you sound, look and carry yourself makes up 93 percent of what goes into being an effective communicator—a critical component to leadership success.

Playing the role throughout tough times

At a dinner party just prior to World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was sharing friendly words with Orson Welles, whose career as a famous actor, film director, writer and producer was just starting to take off. Welles was seated next to the 32nd president of the United States, possibly discussing the serious events of the day or chatting about Welles’ radio adaptation of War of the Worlds. Regardless, the conversation inspired Roosevelt to lean over and whisper, “Mr. Welles, you and I are the two best actors in America.” To run the country, arguably one of the greatest presidents of all times confessed that he had to act, and not just act but be one of the best in the national show. Roosevelt led the country through an extremely rough period in United States history during which there was a great degree of uncertainty and economic peril not unlike that of today. We are, in fact, in a time of war and recession.

And in these more contemporary, yet very tough, economic times, great leadership still requires great acting. It’s about company presidents, CEOs and managers weathering hardships with a sense of calm. When the opportunity warrants, it’s also about making the choice to throw an occasional fit or communicate frustration, disappointment and even anger in a planned, controlled sort of way.

The role that’s played depends on the situation at hand, yet to evolve into a truly good leader, you must learn to thrive in the moment presented, managing it with purposeful grace. Doing so is a talent, for sure, but it’s also a practice—one that almost any impassioned individual can learn given time, experience, self-belief and a genuine confidence in this “art” as a business strategy.

Lee Froschheiser is president and CEO of Management Action Programs (MAP). He is also co-author of “Vital Factors, The Secret to Transforming Your Business - And Your Life.” For over 50 years, MAP has helped 160,000 leaders and 13,000 organizations create sustainable results using the powerful combination of the unique MAP Program, business coaching and consulting services. For more information, visit or call 888-834-3040.