Self and Role

Thursday, July 31, 2014, was the last official day of my Harvard contract. My e-mail address no longer has “” attached to it. I no longer have an office at the Loeb Drama Center. I have passed along my syllabi and schedules to my successor. My office computer, from which I have cleared all vestiges of my existence, has been turned in.

If I am not the Head of Voice & Speech at the American Repertory Theater/Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University, who am I? If I equate myself with that role, I’m in for big trouble.

Let me tell you the story of this past week. Monday morning, I met with the person who was hired, after an arduous national search, to replace me. She wanted to know as much as she could about what I had done in the classroom, how I had organized the programs I headed, and how best to navigate the political complexities of the theater organization. I found myself speaking in the present tense: “I teach this; I do that; I approach it this way.” I had to correct myself: “I taught this; I did that; I approached it this way.” As we parted, the nascent tears in my eyes took me aback.

I wanted to take a quick look at my former office. There was an odd padlock on the door, but my key still worked. I entered. The bookshelves I had cleared for my successor were gone, as were the collected works of Shakespeare I had left as a gift. The computer speakers I had purchased for dialects class were nowhere in sight. The file cabinet with supplies I had organized for her was missing. No folded mats. No Physio balls. Even the the space heaters, essential, as anyone who has spent a winter at 64 Brattle Street knows, had disappeared. Instead, the room was jammed with makeup tables and mirrors, costume racks, extra chairs, three paper mache rhinoceros heads, and the leftover food and detritus from an undergraduate production of an Ionesco play.

This space had been my safe little hideaway since 1997. It was no longer. It had seen good voice work, deep conversations, not a few tears, many meals, naps on those folded voice mats when the days became too long, and hours of creative research. I had to speak harshly to myself: “Nancy, it’s just stuff. If it’s gone, it’s gone. It is NOT who you are. It is not your self.”

No wonder I dreamed that night I was still performing the role of Josie Hogan in Eugene O’Neill’s Moon for the Misbegotten, a play with one of the most agonizing farewells in modern theater. (During the twenty years before I was hired by Harvard I had been an actor, and Josie had been my life for the better part of one of them.) In this disturbing dream, I was back in the dressing rooms of San Francisco’s Magic Theater giving a competitor all the details of how to replace me, even though I wasn’t finished with the role.

The Adaptive Leadership model (Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s radical approach to leading change) speaks about how dangerous it is to equate who you are with the role that you are playing when exercising leadership. Actors know this trap well. If you are actively creating the given circumstances of a play eight hours a day for weeks of rehearsal and months of performance, it’s hard to shake the characteristics and relationships delineated in the script. If the characters are at odds, the actors become at odds, too. Sometimes, actors fall in love if they are in love in the play. When the show closes, they sadly find out that they were in love with each other’s role, not the real person.

It’s also difficult for an actor to separate self from role when the reviews come out. An actor must work to remind herself that the theater critic is seeing the performance of a play, not evaluating ordinary daily life. Every actor has experienced how emotionally devastating it is to feel that a reviewer’s negative words are a personal attack. Or if an actor believes that a critic’s praise is a true assessment of her being, the distortion of self can be troubling. Keeping self distinct from role helps with understanding that the reviewer is voicing an opinion about the actor’s performance of a role with a director within a script within the production as a whole.

The actor’s life is a never-ending, sometimes frustrating, experience of how mutable our roles are. Commitment to a role might last one day or one year. Although every actor dreams of a huge success, when a play performs for many seasons, the hunger to move on to the next project begins to rumble. “I’m getting stale; I need to do something different,” an actor might say to describe the feeling of becoming too identified with a particular role.

How does this apply to leadership? I see it two ways. First, the exhilaration of being in the throes of action is intoxicating. The hard work, the partnerships, the strategies, the risks, all contribute to a sense of meaning. It’s easy to get sucked into thinking that the persona you are creating is YOU. But it’s not. It’s just something that you are doing right now. When you accomplish your goal in helping to facilitate change, you are done.

The second is a healthy defense against taking things personally. If you can see that people are responding to the role that you are playing, not to you, you can strengthen your sense of self. You might meet with resistance, perhaps vehement or even cruel, to the ideas you are proposing. Know that the resistance isn’t against YOU, it’s against the function you are inhabiting. Conversely, you might receive inordinate praise for your work. It’s seductive to believe that this praise is about you, when it’s actually about how successfully you are fulfilling people’s needs in the role you are playing.

As my last week at Harvard progressed, I observed how my relationships were changing. I had a glass of wine with an astrophysicist I had coached; we could now be friends. I had lunch with a department chair; we could enjoy ourselves in a new way. I coached an architect; I had a new status as a free-lance consultant. And sadly, I experienced a former graduate student no longer acknowledging me. I could feel the fetters of my old role drop away, some comfortably, some not.

On my last day on campus I returned to the theater to drop off my empty computer. At first the conversation with my former colleagues was a little stilted. They didn’t quite know what role I was in anymore. I didn’t quite know either. But then something shifted and we were talking in a new way — less formal, less guarded, more available.

I took a slow walk through Harvard Yard. I noticed the shiny good luck toe of John Harvard’s statue and the unchanging stone steps of Widener Library. I saw new bright colored chairs dotting the shaded lawns and crowds of young people taking smart phone photos. When I arrived at my host’s home, I stood on the back deck under an ancient spreading tree and raised my arms to the sky. “I did it!” I shouted. “I’m back to being me.”