Analysis / The American View: Leadership as Performance Art

The American View: Leadership as Performance Art

The first step in assuming a new leadership role is to earn people’s trust. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger Keil Hubert and YouTube film critic Brad Jones discuss how faithfully emulating an established archetype helps to create trust and goodwill with your audience.

You can’t imitate good leadership if you’ve never seen experienced leadership. Put another way, it’s impossible to craft a copy of something if you’ve never seen an original. I hammer this idea into my students when I teach leadership development: becoming an effective leader involves performance art – imitating a known part – so that your followers understand how to relate to you while you grow into the position. If you’ve never before seen a good leader perform, you lack a viable reference model. This is why so many new leaders fail: their ‘on-stage’ personality doesn’t match their ‘audience’ expectations, so their message gets scrambled, eroding their trust and credibility.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a Boy Scout trying to become a Patrol Leader, or an MBA trying to become an executive: stepping into a leadership role demands a measure of impersonation while you master your craft. You can’t bring your non-work persona to the office and expect to be taken seriously. You have to perform your expected role well enough for your audience to accept you.

This is a crucial lesson taught to young military officers. Senior officers would teach us cadets and lieutenants the concepts and tactics behind ‘performing’ our assigned roles from Sir John Keegan’s classic military science textbook The Mask of Command. They drove home the idea that soldiers need to understand their officers – not as individual people, but as essential components of the unit structure. To achieve this, we had to conform to standardised officer archetypes. There were well-trod models of both good and awful Platoon Leaders. Our job required us to mimic the defined the role as best we could. Wear the required mask, so to speak, and perform for our audience.

I taught those lessons to my senior leaders as a unit commander. It took a little translation and cultural adjustment, but my airmen understood and applied the essentials. I tried teaching those same lessons to my junior managers in the commercial space, and it all fell flat; the ideas don’t work nearly as well when translated into corporate jargon. Even though the meaning is a hundred percent transferable, business people tend to reject lessons that came from the military. I get why, but I’m not about to let this not-invented-here mind-set stop me from presenting the idea. This is a crucial element of leadership; everyone aspiring to a supervisory billet must understand how this works if they want to be accepted.

So, if military examples are unpalatable, fine. We can teach these concepts entirely with commercial celebrity examples. Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to the Internet’s own Brad Jones.

Brad Jones playing his Cinema Snob character. 

Mr. Jones is a professional entertainer and entrepreneur who specializes in comedic analysis (and biting parody!) of popular culture, especially films. Among his sixteen original films, web series, and collaborations, one in particular stands out: The Cinema Snob – the series Jones is best known for – is a caricature of highbrow film critics and snooty cinema-philes. As Jones explained in an interview for this column: [1]

The idea ‘…came about from the Siskel & Ebert reviews of Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, and Silent Night Deadly Night.  Not so much from a pretentious angle, but more so because they were so angry about these slasher films.  The character look and attitude more so came from a person who was in the audience during a Q&A session with George Romero, plus some of the snooty local film people that I've known over the years.’

Since launching the Cinema Snob series in 2007, Jones has written, shot, and published over 400 episodes featuring the snarky, petty, sometimes vicious, and always pretentions Snob character. I believe that the series’ success can be largely attributed to how well Jones’ audience reacted to the character’s design. [2] Viewers recognize the archetype that Jones parodies, and enjoys how his exaggeration of the archetype’s expected behaviour helps to land wickedly funny quips.

If you start watching with one of his most-recent episodes, you’ll see a highly-optimized character benefitting from ten years of gradual optimization. [3] That’s to be expected; performers naturally start rough and get better with practice as they learn their role. As Jones put it:

‘The series really started out as just a lark. I was working on some movie projects at the time, and I had enough free time during the day to give a YouTube show a shot. It was nothing that I thought would catch on, it was just something I began because I liked the idea and wanted to try something different. Since I didn't actually expect it to take off, there wasn't a whole lot of planning that went into it.’

Suggesting that before launching the Cinema Snob web series, his implied consumption and analysis of thousands of films was only a hobby.

This is where Mr. Jones and I disagree. I’m not suggesting that he’s misremembering his past. Rather, I submit that the modest and self-effacing entertainer isn’t giving himself nearly enough credit for having nailed the essential core of the archetype he was skewering. Even though the first iteration of the character wasn’t as tightly written as the current version, it’s clear from watching that Jones knew his target very well from the outset. Watching early episodes, you can see the tone and mannerisms of professional commercial film critics and every annoying movie snob you’ve ever known. I recognized that the first time I ever saw a Cinema Snob episode: Jones’ performance was a spot-on impersonation of several annoying film buffs that I’d roomed with at university.

That’s a crucial lesson to remember: just as Mr. Jones imitated a known character design to make the Cinema Snob, so to do new leaders imitate existing characters when they take on a new role. Leaders base their public persona on an impersonation of a preceding successful leader. They may emulate how a previous manager carried himself, or the way that she spoke in staff meetings. What matters is that it’s normal to mimic the mannerisms of other leaders in order to seem credible in the part.

I argued extensively in Lost Allusions that people pick up on subtle behavioural clues and mannerisms just by being around others. People naturally imitate socially-acceptable behaviours and suppresses unacceptable behaviours in order to fit in; it’s an unconscious process of enculturation. Social science shows that passive exposure to others changes how people act and what they believe. As a side effect, the better a person imitates successful peers – conforming to expectations – the more positively they get treated by the rest of their community. The more that a person deviates from expectations, the less they’re accepted.

Since Jones understood the character archetype that he was mocking extremely well and matched his viewers’ expectations equally well, the Snob performances seem to have resonated strongly with audience. Jones amassed a loyal long-term following of viewers who were comfortable giving him space to evolve and change his character over time.

‘At the beginning of the series, [the Snob] mainly just filled the role of [a] snooty art critic who is forced to talk about old exploitation films.’ Jones explained. ‘Little changes were simply introduced to the series over time which makes transitions easier and more organic.’

If a Hollywood studio had tried producing The Cinema Snob, there would’ve been an entire team of writers dedicated to choosing which posters appeared on the back wall each episode. 

Little changes over time work; drastic changes at the beginning often don’t work. Employees expect a new boss to conform to certain behaviours that are common throughout the office culture. These behaviours may vary, from whether or not to wear a tie to whether or not to curse during meetings. Every office culture is a different; every team values different attributes. Exacerbating matters, larger companies usually don't have a single ‘reference model’ for a good leader; instead, they have an amalgamated ideal based on many different instances of ‘good leaders’ across the company. Employees associate certain common characteristics as good, and certain individual idiosyncrasies as either good or bad depending on the context, region, and shared history.

That’s why an essential part of starting a new leadership position involves carefully observing the culture to learn what employees’ expectations are, then figuring out how best to conform to enough of the employees’ expectations to be generally accepted. It works that way in entertainment, too:

‘Since I didn't actually expect [the Snob] to take off, there wasn't a whole lot of planning that went into it.’ Jones said. ‘I knew I wanted a black suit because that's what the dude in the Romero Q&A was wearing. … The black suit, the glasses, the sarcasm, getting upset over nonexistent things, the snooty attitude, and completely making stuff up about the scenes are essential to the character. He's designed to snark and to completely poke fun at bitter angry movie cynicism, not to champion it.’

Jones had a core ‘pretentions movie critic’ character design to work from, but most of the character’s minor attributes were fluid, and open to experimentation:

‘The character has always had the black suit and the big glasses. Other designs just happened because they had to. I grew a goatee because of a movie I was in at the time, and I ended up liking it a lot so I just kept it. I also shaved my head for a movie role too, but again, I liked it, so I kept it. … The sets have changed over the years, simply because I moved a few times.’

Studio-grade resources are awesome, but there’s something compelling about being able to carry all of your video gear to a field shoot in the boot of a hatchback.

Business leaders go through a similar trial-and error process. Once they demonstrate that they can play the expected role, they’re then free to introduce minor changes to their character and watch how each change is received. This can range from changing arrival times to wardrobe to the itinerary of team meetings. If the affected employees don’t mind a change, it might be adopted as the ‘new-normal’ for the office. Sometimes, externally-directed changes – like an office relocation or an organisational restructuring – facilitate behaviour changes as well. Since these changes are imposed on the leader from the outside, employees tend to be much more accommodating of them.

As behaviour and performance changes shift over time, new audience members (employees, in an office setting) have to judge what ‘normal’ means for their leadership archetype by observing how the existing audience reacts. If the main body of affected people accept or ignore a change, then newcomers are likely to accept it so as to not draw attention to themselves. As Jones said:

‘[Fans] reacted to [the character design changes] very well, largely because the show has always evolved to bring in different types of movies and different types of character personas to fit the videos.  Nothing was ever really a drastic immediate change.’

Finally, there’s the issue of defining who the main character is and what he or she truly stands for. The heart of any believable character is defined by his or her beliefs, ethics, and motivations. Those principles that the character stands for in times of adversity; the real person that comes out when he or she is placed under stress. People react to this element of a performance more strongly than they do to ephemeral characteristics like appearance. In Jones’ case, he was deliberately portraying a comedic caricature. ‘It took me a while to really nail the comedic voice,’ he said.

Most bosses are completely oblivious to how un-funny they are because managers – unlike comedians – can fire anyone that doesn’t laugh at their jokes.

That holds true for new leaders as well. Success in a leadership role starts with imitation because that’s the fastest tactic for securing compliance. As a new leader, you’re playing a part in order to win over your people and lessen their anxiety over the change. If your people don’t accept you, then they won’t obey you. That’s why there’s nothing wrong with conforming to some degree with your people’s expectations.

That being said, playing a known- and accepted-part helps people accept you so that you can focus on correctly executing the core of the role: leading people ethically. This is where far too many corporate managers, directors, and executives completely miss the point: they may accurately mimic the appearance and mannerisms of the company’s ideal ‘boss’ archetype, but their performance is nothing more than a costume over a rotten, self-serving, and morally bankrupt core. They never develop the ethics that are required to win true loyalty. They don’t become the required character because their mimicry stops at donning the costume.

Often (I argue) this because unfit leaders have no idea what a viable ‘leader’ character represents. In order to succeed as a leader, a person must act with integrity for the best interests of both the organisation and the people. An effective leader serves both communities … not him- or herself. Somehow, this lesson often gets lost or corrupted in the teaching, resulting in a hollow shell of a person who seems to fit the role, but is both morally and professionally unfit to lead (a.k.a., a Bob).

Overall, the ideas that I want aspiring leaders to take away from this piece are as follows:

  1. Before taking on a new leadership role, strive to understand your audience’s expectations for the role. Observe the people that currently perform (or have successfully performed) it.
  2. Learn the attributes and behaviours make that character recognizable to and resonate with the intended audience. You don’t have to agree; you just have to understand.
  3. Understand that you’re putting on a performance as a leader. In order to be initially accepted by your audience, you have to conform to the archetype(s) that your people recognize.
  4. Faithful imitation lessens anxiety and helps to establish trust. Over time, you can vary your performance to reflect your actual personality. Once your audience accepts you as genuine, they’ll be more comfortable accepting your incremental evolutions.
  5. Finally, it’s not enough to just appear to play the part; you have to play the role with integrity. This means internalizing the organisation’s ideal core values and acting according to genuine moral and ethical principles. No one trusts a proven hypocrite.

The thing about playing a role is that your experienced employees know that you’re performing, and they’re savvy enough to see through your façade to assess the actor underneath.

I expect that Mr. Jones didn’t imagine he’d be held up as a reference model for business school leadership studies when he started making funny videos on the Internet. That said, I submit that his experience bringing us the Cinema Snob helps to get my points across almost as well as the examples that I teach from Mask of Command. Even better, when I teach using one of his caustically funny movie reviews, my students always laugh … which helps to cement key ideas in their memory.

Be warned, though: this concept falls apart if you have no good role models to emulate. Taking a leadership role in a dysfunctional organization that has no decent leaders to imitate seems like a career death sentence. It often is … if you limit yourself to emulating those poor leadership examples that brought the company low. In situations like this, the best thing you can do it shift your sights to leadership examples from outside the organisation. Emulate a prior mentor or hero if you can. If you don’t have one of those, then pick a decent leader from popular culture – real or imagined – and model your performance on theirs. It’s better than nothing, it’s a damned site better than emulating a screw up. Just remember that the mask you don doesn’t define your character; it’s just an artifice that you use in order to help prepare your audience to receive your message. The integrity of the message itself is what ultimately defines a leader as someone worth following.


[1] It was my good fortune to be allowed to interview Mr. Jones for this column on 7th August. I’m indebted to him for taking time out between convention appearances and video shoots to speak candidly about the design, development, and growth of his most popular character.

[2] In addition to ‘guest star’ bit parts played by other web comedians, Jones himself plays a number of recurring side-characters in his own videos.

[3] I recommend starting with the episodes Miami Connection (Series 9, episode 290) or God’s Not Dead (Series 10, episode 336). Be warned that these works of criticism are for mature audiences only, and the videos themselves are often considered Not Safe for Work. Be circumspect while viewing.

Title Allusion: Sir John Keegan, The Mask of Command (1987 book)

Photographs under licence from thinkstockphotos.co.uk, copyright: cute little actress, Choreograph, CD stack, IJzendoorn, office life, diego_cervo, daughter filming mother, Thinkstock Images, sport fans in pub, Dangubic, corporate swine, Camrocker


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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