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National Theatre Blog

Women in leadership – commanding presence, boldness and passion

How Theatreworks’ techniques help build and strengthen women leaders

8 March – As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, today is a day to reflect on empowering and celebrating women around the world – in our homes, communities and places of work. When it comes to leadership, women have come a long way. We are seeing more and more strong women leaders the world over, but there is still a lot of work to do.  

‘The work we do coaching women to command presence, take up more space and to have the confidence to be themselves in the workplace can go a long way to cultivating strong women leaders at any stage of their career.’ says Didi Hopkins, a senior facilitator for Theatreworks, the National Theatre's own professional training programme.


Stage presence


The long history of strong leading ladies in theatre is no accident. An actor’s very job is dependent upon her ‘being in the room’; on making an impact and taking command of her presence on the stage or screen. While women in the theatre are still striving toward achieving a 50/50 gender balance with men when it comes to leading roles and directing, they have a distinct advantage over women in other industries when it comes to leadership and commanding respect.

Women who ‘tread the boards’, or even work with actors regularly, are more aware of, and comfortable with, their presence and how it affects others. Actors spend hours in rehearsals playing with how to use their voices, body language and breath, ensuring that when they are in the spotlight, they come across as the strongest, most passionate version of themselves – and the characters they portray.


Rehearsing for success


Exuding this level of confidence, boldness, passion and presence are the building blocks of strong leaders in any field. Any good leader uses these assets on a daily basis to lead, engage and inspire their team, no matter what their goal or task may be. And while a female executive may not be paid to spend days rehearsing her presentation to the board or her team’s performance reviews, that does not mean they cannot learn or practise the skills needed to deliver them with impact.

Theatreworks applies the same techniques actors and directors use in rehearsal rooms to help organisations of all types cultivate strong leaders. ‘Our experiential training is all about being present and in the moment,’ says Hopkins. ‘We take away the distractions of the office and workplace politics and place our trainees, quite literally, on stage. By focusing on the importance of purpose – of why you’re in the spotlight at any given time – our workshops highlight why what you say and how you say it matters, helping you to convey your message with clarity to any audience.’

Theatreworks participants experience what it’s like to deliver every word clearly and with impact, gaining immediate feedback from fellow participants, as well as the professional facilitators running the course. They rehearse acting techniques for the voice and the body to learn how these affect communication.

‘We also use dramatic language during our sessions to heighten the tension and create conflict,’ says Didi Hopkins. ‘There is nothing quite like reciting Shakespeare to bring out to bring out vocabulary, rhythm, breath, bold language and the imagination.’

And while Henry V is unlikely to feature in a boardroom meeting, participants can recall their voice, poise, posture and breath as they delivered those lines long after the session is over and use these cues to make an impact during any presentation or meeting.


So why just focus on women?


Good leaders of either gender need to command presence and embody boldness, so why an article dedicated to women in leadership? The truth is that these traits tend to come more effortlessly to men and their leadership training tends to focus on different characteristics, such as conveying authenticity. That and the fact that women generally behave differently and are less themselves when they are in mixed groups.

‘Often when I’m training in rooms with men and women there is no overt sexism or stereotyping of any kind, but almost without fail, women can still take up less space and are less comfortable about developing their skills in front of men,’ Hopkins explains. ‘I’ve also found that they are more likely to be honest about their frustrations or things holding them back when they are in a session with only women. Their language is stronger, they express feelings of being under fire and use war-like descriptions and analogies to battles.

‘When men are in the room, the language and atmosphere change – women no longer engage in war-like language to get their point across in a male-dominated boardroom. They describe these situations as “frustrating”, but say they “can live with them”.’

Working with groups of women can help to break down this use of accommodating language, giving them a safe space to express their full frustrations and working with them to channel it towards boldness, rather than aggression. It can help them to stand their ground and be fully themselves and present in any situation.

Incorporating women-only training sessions can be an asset to any organisation’s leadership development programme. They are not designed to give preference to one gender over the other, but to empower participants to make mistakes, let down their guard and be honest – allowing them relax and engage with the tools they need to become stronger leaders.

‘Our goal with these sessions is to connect women with what they already do well: communicate. Theatreworks provides the safe space of a rehearsal room to give women the opportunity to test their assets as communicators and to discover their potential so they can be themselves, with enhanced skills, in the spotlight,’ continues Hopkins. ‘Our workshops help women leaders to establish clarity. Not just in communicating the message they want to convey clearly, but in achieving clarity of purpose so both the speaker and the audience understand why they need to hear the message and their purpose for being there.’


Pitch perfect – speaking with conviction


Another area women find less intimidating to address in female-only training sessions is that of voice control. So often women are judged more harshly than men when it comes to something as basic as their tone of voice and manner of speaking.

‘A tone considered to be authoritative and strong from a man can be perceived as aggressive or angry when it comes from a woman,’ says Didi Hopkins. ‘I spend a lot of time working with my women-only groups to hone their voices so even the most high-pitched or softly spoken of the group come across as centred, calm and energised.’

The heightened, dramatic language Theatreworks uses in its courses can really help draw out the subtleties of tone of voice and help women to test out how they sound. ‘Women need to try various tones of their voice and receive feedback from their peers – without judgement – what they hear; what the sound of their voice conveys. This is essential in getting the balance just right.’


From invisibility to centre stage


In a world where women can and do play centre stage as equals to men, women need to ensure they are visible. It is all too easy for women to blend into the background, to accommodate others and to ignore their own potential – to become invisible.

Didi Hopkins offers advice on how to be a strong, visible leader: ‘Breathe, take your time, speak clearly, keep your energy up, don’t let anybody get in your way. Be passionate. And most importantly, be yourself.

‘Women generally have to work harder to be bold and be brilliant,’ she says, ‘A lot of work still needs to be done for women leaders to be fully developed and in the room. But the good news is, this is happening.’


Interested in learning more about how to incorporate Theatreworks into you your learning and development programme for women? Click here to find out more