Leadership as Theatre

I was intrigued the other day to see a photograph of Pope Benedict in the Blue Mosque, in a typical Muslim prayer stance, alongside leading Muslim clerics. The visit to the Mosque had been a last minute invitation from his guide, and though the Vatican had hotly debated whether the Pope should visit a Mosque during his trip, he readily accepted. Photos of the Pope praying were spashed all over Turkish press and suddenly he was the conciliatory friend to Islam, forgiven for his remarks about Islam and violence some months ago.

It reminded me how important theatre is in leadership. I don’t mean theatre as “pretend” but theatre as simple, dramatic public actions, full of resonance and symbolism. Actions that tell their story very powerfully in a photograph, or a couple of seconds of video footage, or a ten second sound bite. Princess Diana was the mistress of this kind of theatre. Adolf Hitler, who operated pre-TV and made his impact on huge crowds from high podiums, rehearsed huge, dramatic gestures in a mirror, because he knew if they were not huge, they would have no impact when scaled to a crowd of ten thousand people. His dramatic simplifications of the issues facing Germany were horrible but incredibly powerful influencers.

Pope Benedict, is by background, an intellectual, and he seems more comfortable with analysis and exposition than theatre. But the analytical treatment of Islam, taken out of context, got him into serious trouble. Simply standing in a Mosque with Muslim clerics in a prayerful stance for five minutes won him widespread enthusiasm.

There’s clearly a link between storytelling and theatre, but while stories can be both simple and sophisticated, theatre thrives on simplicity and symbolism. In KM, we tend to focus a lot on vocabulary, analysis and complexity. Small wonder we find it hard to gain acceptance, or even sustained attention. Is there a theatre of KM?

6 Comments so far

There are many theatres of KM.

I have been interested in improv theatre as applied to organisations. Esp. Improv’s injunction that “Yes and...” should be your default response to an offer.

Theatres are not always huge auditoriums.

BTW In ancient Greece, actors wore <a href+"http://www.amazon.com/Mask-Command-John-Keegan/dp/0140114068/">masks</a>.

Posted on December 05, 2006 at 08:30 AM | Comment permalink


Improv as I understand it weaves dramatic principles into the daily stuff of organizational living… so in a sense subverts classic theatre which presents a spectacle to an audience and engages their attention and empathy… it was that sense that I was curious about. Are there practices or examples in KM that would serve that role?

Posted on December 05, 2006 at 11:15 AM | Comment permalink

Improv is not necessarily as different from classic theatre as you posit. It retains aspects of performance & spectacle but it changes the relationships between actors & audience.

However, going back to your question - most organisations are replete with spectacular performances. The annual kick-off events at the various US multinationals I have worked for are pure theatre.

Whether spectacle has an important role in KM, I am less certain about. The modelling (in the catwalk sense) of good behaviour around collaboration, sharing & learning by senior managers is without a doubt important.

But it’s certainly not sufficient to make KM a success. Altho I suspect many execs wish that it was.

Posted on December 07, 2006 at 06:51 AM | Comment permalink


Agree on important but not sufficient… but I wasn’t actually after the “leadership” modelling behaviours, I was more curious about whether knowledge managers have been successful in attracting and shaping the attention of their audiences in this way.

Posted on December 10, 2006 at 12:33 PM | Comment permalink

regarding ‘shaping’... attention is not enough, so another aspect of this, of course, is ‘naming’ (change programmes, cultural references etc) in the organisation ... simple names/words/phrases that can carry a long way down the ranks that make it easy to refer to and be talked about. You see a lot of this shorthand referencing. Visual reference helps too, as you know with the “personas”.

Posted on December 29, 2006 at 08:54 PM | Comment permalink


first Cardinal Ratsinger was a careful student of his acting trained predecessor John Paul (John Paul really was an actor in his twenties in Poland). So as the intelligent and intellectual Pope Benedict has learned to apply the lessons learnt as aide to the pope.
To the main question: “is there a theatre of KM?” I would like to divert a little - to the theatre of learning - where I find a little theatrics really helps students learn more. Since the theatrics is related to capturing their attention to enhance information sharing, it is the increased attention that hopefully sparks their interest in gaining knowledge (which they do, not the teacher/presenter). Since I see learning and knowledge enhancement as intricately coupled it is then a matter of deciding if knowledge enhancement is in some way related to KM. For me it certainly is related to PKM (Personal KM).
BTW, why don’t you have a category on learning and knowledge enhancement?

Posted on April 04, 2007 at 08:59 PM | Comment permalink

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