Why MBAs Should Take Acting Classes

Question:  Is power linked to confident leadership?

Jeffrey Pfeffer:  People are going to look at you and they’re going to ask, you know, a very interesting question, “Why should I follow you?”  And if you look like you don’t know what you’re doing, and if you look like you don’t have confidence in what you’re saying and if it looks like you don’t believe in yourself almost no one is going to believe in you. So yes, I think you do have to be able to exhibit confidence and exude confidence.  Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel and cofounder of Intel, has a great quote in which he says something to the effect of: "you need to kind of even if you don’t know what you’re doing you can’t let everybody around you know that because then they’ll give up and become discouraged." So you have to act as if you know what you’re doing and of course change course when you figure out you’ve made a mistake, but you have to act as if you know what you’re doing even if you don’t. And I think that is true in many different contexts.  I mean if you go to a doctor and the doctor comes to you and says you know by the way you have a serious disease and you know I don’t know what to do about it, you’re probably not going to stay in that doctor’s office very long, so I think there is an element of acting and projecting, which is a key element of exhibiting and exuding power.

Question:
Should MBAs take acting classes?

Jeffrey Pfeffer: Absolutely and we in fact at Stanford offer an acting class taught by my colleague Deborah Gruenfeld that’s called "Acting with Power."  I teach one of my sessions in my class.  It’s called "Acting with Power" and I bring in a professional actor named Bill English and he teaches these students how to express emotions that they may not feel, so let’s say you’ve shown up one day at work and you’re boyfriend or girlfriend has left you or you had trouble with your kids.  The people in your workplace aren’t necessarily that interested in the bad things that have happened to you.  They want for you to demonstrate to them that you care about them, that the organization is in great shape, and that we have all these wonderful things to achieve. And so you have to sometimes exhibit energy even when you’re tired.  You have to sometimes exhibit good humor even when you’re sad and depressed. So yes, it’s really very important to be able to exhibit emotions even if you’re not feeling them at that moment.

Recorded September 21, 2010

Interviewed by John Cookson

Projecting confidence is key to gaining and holding onto power—even if you’re not naturally a confident person.

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