One of the most difficult aspects of leading, is leading the unknown. I have been completely unprepared for situations multiple times. Not only are these events out of my control, there are no reference points in my background to lean into.
When hijackers attacked the United States on 9/11, there was nothing in George W. Bush’s background that had prepared him to deal with it. The same thing happened to Barak Obama when he inherited the Financial Crisis.
This is more the norm than the exception. Starbucks, Nike, Facebook, General Electric, Amazon, Uber have all had recent public surprises where their leaders were unprepared.
The 2 questions a leader asks in these moments is: What does this situation need? Who do I need to be?
This is what a method actor considers when they are planning for a role. This helps them define the situation and their intent.
For example, Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the greatest method actors of today. Daniel has three Oscars awarded for Best Actor. He works intentionally to transform himself into the character that he is playing by fully understanding the situation, the intention and the character. He went from Abraham Lincoln to a man with Cerebral Palsy in “My Left Foot”, to an oil baron in “There Will be Blood”, to a Native American in the “Last of the Mohicans.”
In comparison, Sylvester Stalone played a variety of roles from Rocky to Rambo, and each time he played Sylvester Stalone. He was the same every time he showed up, there was no changed intent or character. Character actors can only play themselves and it is difficult for them to change when the situation changes.
Business leaders fall into the same categories.
Steve Ballmer had been highly successful while building Microsoft into a dominant technology company. He was aggressive and in command. But his style and inability to adapt to a new reality caused Microsoft to miss opportunities and lose their leadership position.
When Alan Mulally joined Ford, he walked into a situation where he had no experience and knew nothing about the automobile business. He was able to unite a caustic culture because he saw what the situation demanded and adapted to it.
The popularity of personality profiles can sometimes limit the access or exercise of our abilities. These profiles are helpful to understand ourselves and others but can become a box that we are forced to stay within. Sometimes, the situation may demand us to suspend our authentic style and lead differently. For example, when Sony was hacked, their CEO Michael Lynton became a commander and micromanager leading through the crisis. This was not his natural style and he was probably clumsy as a commander, but effective.
Situations will dictate how we need to show up in order for us to be successful. How we adapt and utilize our full range of abilities and intents will determine our success in these situations. Seasoned leaders understand this and understand themselves enough to be able to play the situation. Just like a good actor, the more we practice, the better we get.