10/09/2012 05:56 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

About Leadership: My Own Voice

During a course on something else entirely, the super facilitator Dick Balzer got us together and said that we had to try some idea techniques, so that we could use them, and be comfortable with doing them. Senior managers often have little formal training in things like brainstorming, mind mapping, above and below the line charting, etc., and, when they try to do them, fumble around with some half remembered ideas from a session they attended.

So it is important to add some of these things to your toolkit, learned and practiced well enough so that you can bring them out when appropriate. Not a lot of things, but a few key ones that are useful. And for this some training is needed, some investment of time.

But the key point is not what you learn in the course; as with any technique, it is how you put it into your 'own voice.' Each of us, in senior corporate roles, has a style and an approach that we like to use, that suits our vocal abilities, our nature as a person. Probably quite a lot of this comes from our upbringing, either copying parents or teachers or deliberately doing things differently. Over time it becomes our style, 'our voice.'

Many years ago when I was teaching chemistry to first year university students, I went to a presentation by Hubert Alyea of Princeton, known as one of the great masters of chemical demonstrations, live chemistry done in front of a class. Alyea had things changing color, exploding, meters swinging and bells ringing, and during some of this hour he sang and danced as well. Of course I came away thinking, well, I guess I can't do demonstrations, because I don't have the showmanship that it takes. But not long thereafter, Art Campbell of Harvey Mudd College came to visit us in New York, and we talked about demonstrations. He told me that he was not a great fan of Alyea, for just the reason of my reaction -- he made people think that unless they could sing and dance they couldn't do demonstrations in front of the class. Wrong -- certainly you can do them; just do them the way that is effective for you!

So when you want to run a brainstorming session with your team, or some other form of breakthrough, it is essential to take what you have learned in a course and put it into your own voice. This is true for the full range of techniques, and applies to all forms of speaking as well.

Like a lot of what characterizes great corporate leaders, the key thing is to listen and observe, to learn techniques, and then to think about how to do this for yourself. This is not like rote learning. It is about internalizing, adapting and then practicing.

We must all be performers; that is part of our role. I have probably seen 40 different actors play Hamlet, and with the best of them I see something new. Recently I saw the versatile actor Patrick Stewart play Claudius, and his interpretation was as if I had never seen the part played before. The same part can be played many ways -- sometimes achieving power in an understated way, sometimes in a bold interpretation, occasionally surprising by using a voice that is not ordinarily your own. That is what makes great theater, and it also makes great leadership.

About Leadership:
About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership - essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?