The art of being a leader involves taking yourself to places where you wouldn’t ordinarily go. That’s what I decided soon after falling under the spell of “The Once and Future King,” by T.H. White. It’s the story of the education of King Arthur, and it’s one of those rare books that’s both entertaining enough to appeal to kids and wise enough to touch adults (or vice versa).
Young Arthur is tutored by the great magician Merlyn, who turns Arthur into a merlin — a kind of falcon — so that he can listen to what hawks and other birds really say when they travel high above us. Merlyn also turns Arthur into a perch so that he can swim in the cold river and match wits with the baddest fish around. Merlyn’s point: You can’t really know something until you have personally experienced that something.
I read that Warren Buffett eats red meat every day, but eating red meat every day won’t make me Warren Buffett. Leadership studies need to take us inside the experience of leading if we’re ever to learn what leadership really is — and if we are ever to get any of that mojo for ourselves.
To get to know power from the inside, I decided to learn to play Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed roles. I suspect that powerful people don’t have more of something than the rest of us; they have less of something — namely, inhibitions. That’s a quaint word these days: We seem to live in a world without inhibitions. But the limits of old have simply become internalized. And those limits make us, and our world, ever smaller. I decided to use Richard as leadership shock therapy. If I could play the part of Richard, would my own inhibitions melt? If I could walk his walk without adopting his bad habits, would I have a shot at the top?
If leadership means moving people toward a vision, then Richard was a leadership prodigy. One of the most stunning moments in “Looking for Richard” (1996), Al Pacino’s movie about Richard III, comes when Pacino, playing Richard, bursts in on a shaken Winona Ryder, playing Lady Anne, who is standing in front of the casket of her murdered husband. Anne spits at Richard in contempt. Richard has killed not only her husband but also her father-in-law, and now he has come to propose marriage to her.
He walks up to her until there is nothing between them — no space and no horrible past, only this moment. He says the unsayable: I killed them because of you; if you want to blame anyone, blame yourself. Then he gets on his knees and looks up at her as if he were her child, or her slave. Take me or kill me, he says. He holds a knife to his throat and then holds her hand to the knife. There is nothing appealing about this man — nothing to make her believe that his death would be a loss to anyone. But Anne gives in. His desire for her is just too much. She cannot kill him. Instead, she agrees to marry him.
As if all of this weren’t enough, Pacino turns to the camera and whispers, “I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long.” I could just hear Bill Gates saying something like this about a technology that he would devour — because he could. Or Rupert Murdoch saying the same about a company, a town, or a sports franchise that he would take — because it was there. What must that feel like — to have a desire so compelling that it persuades others to follow your aim?
I found a teacher who is so Merlynesque that he’s been called “The Great Guskin.” Harold Guskin has coached some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, from Peter Fonda and Michael J. Fox to Michelle Pfeiffer and Candice Bergen. He helped Bob Dylan put the heart in the movie Hearts of Fire.
I met Guskin in his basement office last January. “You know, some actors hate to leave the part of Richard,” Guskin warns me. “They say to themselves, ‘I have this feeling of being special.’ The power gets to them. They have so much ambition, but in fact, they often think of themselves as hideous shells. They get into playing the role of the ugly king so deeply that they hate to stop.”
Guskin gives me a quick prep for the journey we’re about to take. “A star’s ability to communicate comes down to focus,” he says. “As an actor or as a leader, you have to think that everything is there for you. When you turn to other people, you have to think that what they have to offer is all for you. So you give them everything; you give them all of your attention.
“All of us are vulnerable to that kind of focus. We need to be listened to, to be taken in, to be paid attention to. Very few people ever get any attention paid to them. So the person who takes them in becomes thrilling to them. That’s the way executives control people. And the leaders who genuinely have that quality are stars.”
Then we get down to business. Guskin says, “You play Richard in the scene where he seduces Lady Anne, the young woman whose husband he has just killed. I’ll play Anne.” Huh? I start learning to be Richard by seducing Anne, while the Great Guskin plays the young and innocent victim? I thought we were doing Shakespeare — not an Anne Rice novel.
Now, this is a real problem. I’m not really like Lady Anne, but I’ve played a victim in real life. Playing the victimizer right away is a bit much. Couldn’t I just start with a sword fight? Maybe a murder?
Guskin is immune to my discomfort. “Lead as if there were no other choice, no in-between,” he suggests. “That is the ultimate goal. People identify with that kind of force. Real power — in terms of becoming the king, the biggest, the wealthiest — means offering no alternative: You kill me, or I take it all, and then you become mine; you become part of me.”
The Great Guskin opens his Talmud-size copy of the works of Shakespeare. I open my Snickers Bar-size paperback. We begin. I read the first line of the scene:
Teach not thy lip such scorn; for it was made
For kissing, lady, not for such contempt.
It sounds no better than a fair rendition of a line that I recall from a Mel Brooks movie: “Let me speak from my heart: da Dah da Dah da Dah da Dah.”
“Don’t try to get it right. Just believe in what you’re saying,” Guskin advises. He’s right. I’ve seen the kind of attitude that he’s talking about: moguls lying blatantly about things both big and small, or engaging in over-the-top gestures. (I once had lunch with an agent who walked out of Spago carrying one of the restaurant’s chairs, just to see if he could do it. No one stopped him.)
Try again, Guskin says. So I try the lines again. And again. No matter what I do, I can’t say them in a way that convinces me or Guskin that I mean them. “You want to know how to woo a stranger?” Guskin asks. “Just don’t stop. Keep going, and you’ll win.”
Speaking Richard’s lines is like drinking my own piss. But I try yet again:
I’ll have, but I will not keep her long.
What! I that kill’d her husband and his father:
To take her in her heart’s extremest hate,
With curses in her mouth, tears in her eyes. . . .
And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!
Reality begins to shift. I start to see Anne’s weakness from the outside. Reading Richard’s lines again and again, I stop identifying with her pain. She seems weak, easy, pathetic, and farcical — ready for the taking. I am in command. Everything starts to look simpler than it did before. I see only one thing: not Anne, not the corpses, only the goal.
Stand, Guskin says. I do, and everything changes. Suddenly, I am Richard. I am in command. And it scares the living daylights out of me. I get up, and the sweat is pouring off me. I want to run. I check my watch. Our time is up.
As I leave, Guskin warns me, “Be careful. Don’t whack your head on the low ceiling.” My head has already been whacked — inside his room. Leadership based on personal power is tough. To appreciate that, a person like me has only one way to go: through Richard. Despite all of the folderol about humane leadership, you can’t get to the top without playing Richard — instinctively, or through studious preparation. Playing Richard has made me more sympathetic to what any person must go through in order to play the role of leader. Leadership is an emotional hotbed. It’s tough. And we on the outside make it tougher, thanks to flaws in our own leadership education.
How do we understand leadership? Badly. No, stupidly. We mythologize leaders (see Fortune) or criticize them (see the Wall Street Journal). It’s time to start empathizing with leaders — to view them as if we were looking in the mirror, as if we were down on our knees and up against the knife. We ask our leaders to be kinder and nobler. But what if we took the first step? What if we were kinder and nobler to Gore, to Clinton, to Gates? Leaders are what we ask them to be. If we were smarter about the leadership role, we might get leaders who were as bold as Richard — yet free of his evil heart.
Harriet Rubin (firstname.lastname@example.org), a Fast Company contributing editor, is based in New York City. Her latest book, “Soloing: Realizing Your Life’s Ambition, will be published this month by HarperCollins.