Only a few minutes into the movie ‘Joker’ (2019), a troubled Joaquin Phoenix asks a social worker: ‘Is it just me or is it getting crazier out there?’ From that very moment I was hooked to his character, ready to be led by it through the entire movie and set to enjoy the most thrilling cinematographic experience in more than a decade.
The art of acting has significantly evolved over the last decades. For a long time it relied upon making grand declarations in a rather theatrical fashion which involved costumes and exaggerated gestures. Laurence Olivier and his performance in ‘Hamlet’ (1948) is often referenced as a typical example of that approach. In the 1950’s, an alternative technique called ‘method acting’ started to gain ground. According to its original promoter, Konstantin Stanislavsky, actors are to get as close as possible to their character physically and mentally by diving into themselves for a thrilling performance basking in realism: ‘No matter how much you act, how many parts you take, you should never allow yourself any exception to the rule of using your own feelings.’ It is the recipe to achieve an excellent performance designed to captivate an audience. Marlon Brando, Meryl Streep or Dustin Hoffman are amongst the early adopters. They also include Robert De Niro whose role in ‘Taxi Driver’ in 1976 appears to have inspired a number of themes and scenes in Todd Phillips’ Joker.
Shakespeare famously wrote in ‘As you like it’ (est. 1599) that ‘All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women are merely players.’ Everyone has to act their part – including individuals in a leadership position. In that respect, there is a management school which supports ‘authentic leadership’ based on a theory by Harvard professor and former Medtronic CEO Bill George. His method bears some analogy to Stanislavsky’s as it encourages individuals to leverage and be loyal to their true selves when ‘acting’ as leaders. Executives are indeed said to deliver the best performance when relying with integrity and at all times on some form of extrapolation of their inner identity, notwithstanding the pressure from the outside world.
Method acting is said to take its toll on actors as discussed in a comprehensive article from The Atlantic: ‘How Actors Create Emotions: A Problematic Psychology’. The psychological trouble and, in some tragic cases, the unexpected death of talented actors such as Philip Seymour Hoffman fuels the notion that some struggle to draw the line between their self and their character. Heath Ledger who played the ‘Joker’ in ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008) and who suffered the same fate is another sad example.
Leadership is a performance. When making it intimately personal, leaders, like actors or as actors on the word’s stage, must learn not only how to ‘en-role’ but also how to ‘de-role’, i.e. to implement ‘an intentional, mindful act to create a separation from self and the character played’. That way, they have a chance to render leadership sustainably impressive rather than perilous.