Why Theater Geeks (like me) Make Great Leaders

September 24, 2011 — 6 Comments


I just finished reading Manfred Kets de Vries' The Leadership Mystique to kick off the fourth term in my doctorate. In terms of ink I put on the pages, this one is pretty high up there. Lots of underlining. 

I should tell you that I have quite a love-hate relationship with books on leadership. I'm really down on their use by pastors and churches. I've witnessed and experienced the "shadow side" (a term de Vries uses often) of church-as-corporation and pastor-as-CEO. I don't think that modeling a church after a corporation or modeling the pastoral role after CEO is faithful, helpful, or Biblical. But that is for a different blog post. Plenty of churches have bought into that model of "doing business" and, for them, this is one of the better books on leadership out there. Maybe Bill Hybels will even invite the author to the "Global Leadership Summit" one day. Ugh. 

On a personal level, I eat up books on leadership. My father spent his career as a corporate VP, CEO, and President. I've been around organizational leadership my whole life. I've frequently fantasized about being "top dog" in this or that organization or company. In fact, it is not unusual for me to begin daydreaming about reaching higher levels of corporate responsibility within days of joining a new organization. But as to the actual practice of leadership, I have a lot left to learn. Which is why I'm so fascinated by books on leadership and leadership development. 

I've spent most of my working career in "para-church" nonprofits. I've also worked in churches. It's hard to say which I enjoy more. Reading de Vries I found it most helpful to process his analysis and advice through my experience in the nonprofit realm. When I overlaid it against my church employment, it just made me frustrated. Again… different blog post. I'm just going to highlight two recurring themes which I found personally helpful: the "inner theater" of the leader and the leader-as-storyteller.

The author has experience as both an economist and a psychoanalyst, one of the things that makes his book so interesting. This unique combination lends him to bridge the ground between leadership/organizational theory and leadership psychology. In one of the denser, but more profitable chapters of the book (chapter 2) he delves into what he is convinced makes a leader "tick" – those things that act as sub-currents driving a leader's decision making. He calls this their "inner theater" (p. 5). It is upon this "stage" that a well-worn "script" plays out over and over, often unnoticed by the leader (ibid.). As a theater geek myself (I hold an undergraduate degree in acting), de Vries is speaking my language.

He bases the script of a person's inner theater on their "core conflictual relationship theme (CCRT)" originally developed by Lester Luborsky (p. 39). The CCRT is what stands behind most of our repetitive relationship difficulties and is what leaders project into their decision making. The organizations they lead often end up mirroring their CCRT. He breaks the CCRT down into three constitutive components: 
  • A wish in the context of a relationship.
  • Our anticipation of how others will react to us in the context of this wish.
  • Our own reaction to this response, be it behavioral or affective. (ibid.)
To identify one's CCRT means to analyze significant episodes in one's life that ended particularly well or particularly badly. It usually isn't difficult to identify what the wish is in any given incident. What is it that you wanted? From there, you must attempt to honestly assess how you believed others would respond to your desire. That kind of transparency can be difficult (and sometimes painful). Finally, you must take note of how you reacted to that anticipated response. What did you do (or not do)? What did you feel? How did your anticipation of others' reactions inform the actions or decisions you made? Were you responding to the actual response or the perceived response? Again, these are not easy questions to answer.

Doing this kind of analysis on significant events or decisions throughout the course of your life will reveal your core wish. You can usually distill your core wish into a common, abiding theme such as, "the wish to be loved and understood, the wish to be distant and avoid conflict, the wish to hurt others, the wish to achieve to help other people, the wish to oppose and control, the wish to be controlled and not held responsible, the wish to assert oneself and be independent, and the wish to feel good and comfortable" (41). 

Knowing one's CCRT and core wish is incredibly helpful in developing one's leadership skills and potential. Many leaders become frustrated because they experience the same kinds of setbacks or pushback over and over again, even though they change strategies, projects, positions, and even organizations. Dealing with a CCRT based on a recurring lie or a core wish that is based upon  a negative outcome can lead to the kind of change in a leader's perception and decision making that may just get them over the hump.

Kets de Vries then spends the next several chapters writing about the shadow side of leadership. He outlines the perils of leadership, what leads most leaders toward failure, and the most prevalent neuroses found in leaders. Then he turns a corner and begins constructing the skills and outlook of a well-built, successful leader. That is where we find repeated references to the virtue of leader-as-storyteller. Again, as a theater geek, he's speaking my language.

When I was in my senior year of my undergrad, I had the distinct honor of joining an elite repertory theater ensemble. Of the different traveling shows we performed, one was geared for young audiences, titled Talespinners. It was a delightful weaving of several children's books, adapted for the stage. The opening number introduces the players as "weavers of words." It paints the picture of the players as creators of magical, inspirational stories. And that is, basically, what we did.

In a similar fashion, the author writes that leaders must become good at "'the management of meaning' . . . [leaders] create strong images to get people moving; they're good storytellers; they know how to make a point through ceremonies, symbols, and settings. Furthermore, they're masters of language, adept at using similes, metaphors, and irony" (201). This role as chief storyteller is essential to the "envisioning, empowering, and energizing" of those they lead (p. 204). Later he calls leaders of this ilk "the high priests of their organization's culture" (207). 

This is not to say that a good leader only spends his or her time casting vision and telling stories. She must also be an adept organizational architect, creating the structures and people systems necessary to actually carry out the vision. However, in an era of share-price obsession, most organizations err on the side of leaders who can increase revenue and decrease expenditures, masters of the bottom line. Little attention is paid to jazzing up employees and customers. That's a shame. The author even suggests that, as a part of leadership development, leaders take some acting lessons (240). My inner-theater-geek smiled.

Kets de Vries has a lot more to say about leadership, and the book is well worth the read. I was able to do some great reflection (and may have identified my own CCRT and core wish – boy, do I have some work to do). It helped me re-imagine myself as a leader and as a person who, paradoxically, is a follower inspiring others to follow with and behind him. I still have a lot of work to do in the realm of my own leadership development – I need to be mentored (and can't sit around waiting for someone to "find" me anymore) and I need to hone my skills as an organizational architect. Oh, and I probably need to start identifying the kinds of organizations I'd like to lead. Yeah, that'd be pretty important as well.

Anderson Campbell


  • Chris Marshall

    1) please use that pic for your graduation announcements next year. utterly fantastic.2) like your reflection, we as leaders tend to take ourselves far too seriously and think we are the agents of action for God. in reality, most of us lead from places of deep brokenness and God just uses our leading as a means to reach us, as opposed to needing our efforts. The further I go, the more I’m realizing that God doesn’t need me but he does want to be ‘with’ me. Humbling.

  • Glenn Williams

    I thought De Vries’ explanation of a leader’s CCRT was very insightful and caused me to take time to reflect on what my needs as a leader are and how these may impact the way I lead – for good or worse. I must admit though, it took me a lot longer to recover from the pic than reflecting on CCRT! 🙂

  • Anderson Campbell

    LOL! That pic seems to be quite the hit. In light of my (well, our) recent journeys, the CCRT discussion takes on importance. How much of my recent journey is influenced by my "inner theater"? 

  • Rodger McEachern

    Andy – I am not as taken with leadership material as you are and that may reflect in part our different inner theatres and our experiences that in part created our inner theatre. I wonder [and not to diminish the importance] the role of context has in the importance of storytelling [reflecting a ‘post modern suspicion of authority?] in leadership…which leads me another question…how contextual is one’S CCRT? That is, it may be relevant today [since it is contextualised for today]…but a year from now…will my CCRT be the same, similar or vastly different? [ as mt context changes…more so considering if the Spirit of God is active!]…thanks Andy as always for getting my few brain cells to function. dmingml

  • Russ Pierson

    I loved this, Andy … Which seems to be a recurring them with your writing, ;-)The notion of leader as chief storyteller was compelling for me, and I’ve often thought about the importance of performing arts in leadership. Just tonight, driving to Portland, I heard an NPR piece assessing Rick Perry’s early debate performances. Despite entering the presidential race with a huge tailwind, his inability to express himself clearly while having to think on his feet has led many early supporters to jump off he bandwagon. Compare this to President Obama who, whatever one thinks of his politics, remains by all accounts an incredible communicator.One last take-away for me: I clearly need to tell Loren… And Chuck to watch their backs! 🙂

  • Rodger McEachern

    Andy – perhaps responding to what Russ wrote, though partially inferred in your posting…re presentation of a leader…and this is one point in which I disagree with De Vries and others who view charismatic leadership in terms of management of meaning [though I know he speaks of the architecture of leadership]…agreed this may be important in relationships [speak what you mean but in love]…do you not think that the managing of meaning is often a distortion of truth and authenticity?…in Ontario there is an election campaign occurring…all three political parties and leaders are not telling the people the truth of the economic state of the provincial coffers…they are managing meaning…are they naive that the voters won’t notice, or arrogant believing the voters can’t understand or accept the truth, or are they being being good leaders as the manage meaning…and when elected they will tell the truth…and then take credit for being good leaders because they are managing the dire fiscal straits of the province…at the end of the day a leader will be judged on performance not presentation [eg St Paul vs. the Greek orators the Corinthians were enamoured with]…just thinking outloud dmingml