In 2006, the action movie Miami Vice was released around the world. It’s the story of two rugged cops who use unconventional methods to get their job done. The movie was actually a re-make of a 1980s television show, which starred Don Johnson. Don Johnson was “the man” back in his day. He was cool. He was tough. He shot straight, which may explain his behavior one day, off camera. Don Johnson had just left a store, after shopping a bit. He was enjoying some down time, away from his hard work as an actor. Suddenly, a thief bolted out the door. The man had just robbed the place and was determined to get away with his loot. Sadly for him, he had no clue who was nearby. When Don Johnson saw what was happening he didn’t have to think twice. He took off after the crook, wrestled him to the ground, retrieved the stolen money and held the thief until police came to arrest him. One bystander commented, “It was an amazing thing to watch, just like the show!”
You can only imagine what the thief felt when he looked up at his captor—only to see the face of Mr. Miami Vice, himself. When newspapers reported the story the next day, one question surfaced over and over: “Does life imitate TV or does TV imitate life?”
The fact is, both are true. Don Johnson had so embraced the character he played over and over; it was intuitive for him to pursue the criminal that day. It was second nature. He probably did it without thinking. He had “acted” his way into a character, full-time.
This little incident illustrates an important truth for us as leaders. It’s the power of acting, from the inside out. A Russian theater director named Konstantin Stanislavski captured the idea more than a hundred years ago. Konstantin came up with a system for training actors, which included two major ideas: “Active Memory” and “The Method of Physical Action.” The first theory helped actors to step into a character by utilizing their memories of past similar emotions. In other words, become the character from the inside out. The second theory, called The Method of Physical Action (MPA), is simple to explain but its implications are profound. It’s based on the idea that our emotional life is a two-way street. The one item an actor has complete control of is his body. Therefore, an actor must use his body as the primary tool of creation. Acting on an emotion gives it life. Actors must figure out what an emotion would cause them to do if they experienced it—and do it. Action brings out the heart and soul of that emotion. To put it in common language, you are more likely to act your way into a feeling than to feel your way into an action. There’s power in raw action.
So, what’s our application as leaders? As we set out to transform our organizational culture, we must remember that all cultures act on values they embrace. Kenya or Uganda, for instance, are countries whose citizens act a certain way because they’ve been raised with certain customs from childhood. They pick it up by watching the actions of those around them. In the same way, all organizations act a certain way because certain values have been embraced over time, either by default or design. They can be healthy or unhealthy, based on the conduct of those who have influence. Soon, the actions permeate the entire staff.
Research done by Dean Meyer and Associates helps us understand this principle. Dean and his team discovered that when a company determines to change their culture, they often make a list of the new values, then verbally communicate them to their teams. This isn’t bad, but their research shows that by approaching change this way, it will take between ten to fifteen years for the organization to actually embrace those values. However, if the top leaders create a set of new values, then attach actions to each of those values and incorporate them into the leadership behavior, it requires just three years to bring about a culture change. Once again, it’s the power of action. I call it The Hollywood Effect. Although it feels like you’re “pretending” in the beginning, action translates faster than great speeches. Action produces emotion. And emotions multiply. They change organizations from the inside out.
As we lead students, may I remind you of the most important principle of leadership: modeling. Your actions scream; your words whisper. Nothing is more powerful than a leader’s example. Don’t preach what you don’t practice. In fact, failing to practice what we preach has caused countless parents to fail, managers to fail, educators to fail, even youth pastors to fail. We must become the change we desire. We can’t afford to wait until we “feel” like it. Remember, we’re more likely to act our way into a feeling than to feel our way into an action. Along the way, it’ll become second nature, just like Don Johnson stopping a thief on the street. It’s The Hollywood Effect.
Where have you seen this principle in action or, where have you seen leaders fail to practice it?
(By the way—if you enjoyed this blog, it’s an excerpt from Habitudes, Book Four.)