Acting Lessons…Not Just for Thespians Anymore

What can b-school students learn in a theater class? Plenty, it seems, as a growing number of prestigious MBA programs are including acting classes as an innovative way to boost leadership, communication and presentation skills. In a “Leadership as Acting” course at MIT-Sloan, students perform a condensed version of Shakespeare’s “Henry V”, in which a small group of people with a common goal and an inspiring leader can achieve great things.

Former course participant Kerry Bowie said, “The speech I gave ”” when Henry rallies the troops and is very persuasive about how they don’t need anyone else to come from England and fight with them ”” that’s a good speech in terms of motivation.” Bowie went on to explain that “as a leader, sometimes you have to do that. I think that CEOs of starts-ups are saying the same thing. ”˜We can do this. We can go and meet the giants.’”

A recent businessweek.com article titled “MBAs Acting Out” says acting classes are cropping up on curriculums at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, which offers an acting elective where students are asked to write and perform their own plays; Babson College, which has a class titled Acting Skills for Success in Business; and Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. Sloan gives its class each fall during its innovation period, a week each semester in which MBAs are encouraged to hone their soft skills through experiential classes.

Acting lessons teach students how to master the non-academic qualities””teamwork, leadership and interpersonal skills””that employers and recruiters are looking for in potential managers. A 2007 Graduate Management Admission Council corporate survey reported that companies that recruit and hire MBA students primarily focus on the candidate’s interpersonal skills during the interview process, with 63% rating interpersonal skills as “very important.”

Dirk Riehle (Stanford GSB 2004) took an improv class because he was curious about how it could help his management skills. Riehle discovered that many of the skills taught in improv theater translate into making better crisis managers. He says both improv actors and crisis managers must be able to think creatively and on their feet in a time crunch; accept input from teammates as relevant contributions; and focus on the task at hand while maintaining peripheral vision to catch new developments.

Across the country, theater groups such as Improv Asylum in Boston, Bay Area Theater Sports in San Francisco, or The Groundlings in Los Angeles offer private workshops for corporations large and small to stimulate teamwork and creativity. Leadership is all about performance, so if you need a little help in this department, shake off your stage fright and consider signing up for an acting class.

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