A stammering Boris Johnson, tired eyes downcast, breathing heavily, last week renewed his apology to the Queen for parties held in Downing Street on the eve of her husband’s funeral. Whatever the UK prime minister’s fate, that January 18 video clip, from Sky News, is bound to be used to illustrate the depths he has plumbed this month.
Yet plenty of viewers offered a more cynical interpretation. Johnson’s contrition was a clever piece of political theatre to satisfy the masses so he could move on. The surgical mask he wore could even have concealed the familiar smirk of a practised trickster getting away with it again.
Johnson looked genuinely remorseful to me. But does it matter if he rehearsed his apology?
Most of the time, Johnson is skilled enough to adjust his act to suit his audience. To suggest that, as a result, he rarely reveals “the person” behind the performance is to forget that the word person derives from the Latin for mask.
Acting seems to contradict the idea that the best leaders are “authentic”. But authenticity is much abused. As Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones explained in their book Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?, authenticity means “being yourself more, with skill”.
In other words, a leader who is an irritable bigot ought to suppress those aspects of his personality (at least, that used to be the case before the frighteningly authentic Donald Trump worked them into his election platform).
Executives have to “act into” the role that they wish to assume, says, leadership professor Liisa Välikangas, of DTU, the Technical University of Denmark. She draws on parallels between performances and social interactions examined in the 1950s by sociologist Erving Goffman in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
Välikangas herself puts executive MBA students through two days of coaching by actors from the UK-based training organisation Dramatic Resources. “If an actor takes a role as King Lear, it isn’t that he’s inauthentic in the role, it’s more about ‘What is my King Lear, how do I take on that persona?’,” she points out.
Masks and personas can provide protection and bolster confidence. Adele told Rolling Stone in 2011 that she overcame stage fright by channelling a persona she calls “Sasha Carter”, a combination of Beyoncé’s alter ego Sasha Fierce and country singer June Carter. Jimmy Anderson, the England cricketer, was coached to spice up his bowling by inhabiting an aggressive on-field character, “Jimmy”, as opposed to the gentler off-duty “James”. Hollywood actor Chris Pratt advised volatile US golfer Bryson DeChambeau to “play [a] fictional character for a while” to get through a spate of attacks on his performance and behaviour last year.
Similarly, executives are sometimes shown how to beat self-doubt and imposter syndrome by imagining how others would handle the same situation, or by tackling the challenge as though acting on behalf of someone else, such as a close family member.
Still, it would be unusual for a chief executive to admit to pretending to be a leader. Masks are for spies and fraudsters, not corporate chieftains. One exception was disgraced media magnate Robert Maxwell. Born Jan Hoch, he was spy, charlatan, and CEO and masqueraded under multiple aliases in his lifetime. At first, he needed the cover to flee or fight the Nazis, but John Preston suggests in his book Fall that Maxwell “rather liked slipping from one identity to another”.
An addiction to concealment, then, is one pitfall of taking the act too far. Another is when a leader becomes so fixated on playing a part that they unmoor from their core values and use their persona to justify malfeasance. “I wasn’t myself,” is a feeble defence.
It is a sign of emotional intelligence to know when to present different versions of ourselves, says communication coach Sheelagh McNamara, who has worked with performers and executives to beat stage fright and improve their presentation skills. But she adds that athletes and singers usually employ alter egos to achieve narrow technical excellence. Executives need to be more flexible and adaptable: “Would I encourage someone to be somebody else? No.”
The corporate world is plunging headlong into a virtual-reality future. The metaverse could make possible ways of communicating that were unimaginable to Goffman in the 1950s, when he wrote about the “potentially infinite cycle of concealment, discovery, false revelation, and rediscovery” in social interaction.
That leaders seeking to immerse themselves in this world will have to adopt a persona, create an avatar, and don a mask to take part should put everyone on their guard.