Have you noticed how many top leaders were once actors, athletes, or other performers? And how few graduated from traditional academic leadership programs?

Actors, athletes, and other performers have become U.S. Presidents, Governors, Senators, Congress members, Mayors, founders of well-known companies, and more. Love or hate actor-turned-President Ronald Reagan, he ranks near the top of many Presidential polls. Meanwhile, the only MBA President, George W. Bush, ranks near the bottom.

Performers-turned-leaders include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Oprah Winfrey, Muhammad Ali, Sean Combs, Jesse Ventura, Jackie Chan, Al Franken, Jane Fonda, and more—not mere trend-setters. Besides not taking traditional leadership programs, many left or failed out of school. By contrast, few politicians or business leaders become performers or athletes.

What’s going on? Why do top leadership programs produce few top leaders? Do traditional leadership programs actually produce middle managers? If so, what are our organisations and society losing by relying on them?

More importantly for leadership students and educators, what works that we’re missing?

I first learned that schools taught leadership at Columbia Business School, where I got my MBA. Before then, I figured you were born a leader or not. Business school taught me leadership principles, but implementing them after graduation felt like starting from scratch. Trying, say, to negotiate armed with principles but not experience still crippled me with anxiety.

Teaching me about leading didn’t teach me to lead.

After graduating, I consumed leadership books, videos, courses, and any literature I found. They overwhelmingly focused on facts, information, and principles too, without actionable instruction on how to develop skills and experiences. While facts didn’t hurt, what leader became great from knowing more facts? Facts are a commodity that computers handle better.

How performers from other fields led without leadership education remained unexplained.

Two other fields showed me how to teach people to lead. The first was how we teach performers in other fields. The second was experiential, project-based learning—a teaching method tracing its roots to John Dewey and before.

How We Teach Performance in Other Fields


Performers in other fields aren’t born masters either but learn through disciplined, dedicated, and structured practice. Let’s first consider how we don’t teach performance.

How We Don’t Teach Performance


Imagine that piano teachers taught only through lecture, cases, and biography; that piano scales as exercises didn’t exist, nor other standard exercises; that everyone learned piano in classrooms at desks, listening to lectures on music theory or debating case studies about other pianists; that teachers didn’t play, but researched and published instead; and that school ended with Commencement, meaning you commenced playing when school ended.

Books on habits of highly effective pianists, 48 laws of piano playing, and pianists’ lives would cover principles, not playing. You would write more papers and take more tests than perform—school performances would be for classmates, not the public. You wouldn’t face the anxiety of public performance, the exhilaration of nailing a performance, or the shame of blowing one.

You wouldn’t expect people to play well by graduation. People who loved playing most would feel frustrated and disengage the most. Those who left or got kicked out might use their freed-up time to practice, developing their voices and learning to enjoy performing while their classroom-bound peers listened to lectures and wrote papers.

How To Teach Performance

Now imagine someone in that world invented piano scales as an exercise, not just theoretical concepts, as well as other exercises of all levels.

Then anyone could start playing. Practicing basics develops skills to play actual music. When exercises are based in theory, they teach you theory too—so it’s usable, not abstract. If there are no big jumps in difficulty between the exercises, you can practice your way to mastery.

Lecture-based schools might criticise all that playing for neglecting the theory they consider fundamental. They might not recognise practicing as relevant to learning piano. They might fear their authority diminishing.

Aspiring pianists might rejoice at playing more and learning from it. Some might feel liberated from lecture and analysis. They might create for themselves more opportunities to perform, overcome anxieties, and improve faster. Some might start alternative schools.

We could have imagined fields besides piano transformed from theoretical to practical—dance, sports, singing, improv, etc. In one case, though, we don’t have to imagine. James Lipton, creator and host of Inside the Actors Studio, described such a revolution in acting:

At the end of the nineteenth century, a man named Constantin Stanislavsky rebelled against the kind of presentational hortatory, self-conscious, self-referential, often self-reverential acting that was the norm.

Stanislavsky developed a system of acting and of exercises, of training, of rehearsal, and of performance that went from a theatre that was meant to impress to the theatre that was meant to express. And suddenly, everything that was external—the fine form, the perfectly articulated vowels, the piercing consonants, the thick make-up, everything that was posed and disbelieved by the actor—god forbid that the actor should cry and mess up his make-up… this was the way acting was taught and the way acting was done until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Stanislavsky changed all that. The Moscow Art Theatre came to New York and everything changed in America forever. These young people—Stella Adler, Herald Clurman, Lee Strasburg—they went and saw this theatre and it wasn’t like anything they’d seen before. These people really believed what they were saying. They were expressing something that was truthful to them and therefore truthful to the audience. It was an extraordinary experience.

It wasn’t declaimed. It wasn’t recited. It hadn’t been rehearsed in front of a mirror. It wasn’t perfect.

It was real.

Stanislavsky freed actors from pursuing abstract, inauthentic perfection in favour of exercises that created what felt true and real. His students soon became teachers, creating and refining their styles. Nobody teaches perfection today. Acting didn’t abandon rigour or standards, though. Actors today practice with as much diligence and discipline as ever.

It’s not surprising for a community that produces genuineness, authenticity, expression, and sensitivity to produce great leaders, even if traditional leadership educators don’t get it.

Stanislavsky’s system was new to acting, but many fields—dance, voice, improv, and sports, for example—teach through experiential, comprehensive, integrated progressions of exercises starting with basics. Lecture, theory, and cases have their places, to be sure—after practice.

What do these fields have in common? They are active, social, emotional, expressive, and performance-based (ASEEP). In ASEEP fields, students practice basics until they master them, then progress to intermediates, and so on. Exercises differ between fields but not the structure. Many results are the same too: skills, experience, genuineness, authenticity, sensitivity, discipline, vision, expression, and so on.

Leadership is an active, social, experiential, emotional, and performance-based field too. We teach nearly every ASEEP field with ASEEP methods except leadership. No one has made the leadership equivalent of scales through advanced pieces.


Until this book: Leadership Step by Step


 Written by Joshua Spodek

This article is an extract from Josh’s book Leadership Step by Step: Become the Person Others FollowJosh is a leadership coach and adjunct Professor at NYU, he mentors, coaches and teaches leadership to a range of different audiences from entrepreneurs to corporate. With a PhD in astrophysics and an insatiable thirst for knowledge, Josh is one to watch. Visit his website and listen to his podcast here to learn more.