"Playing" with VBL
Using the Theatre of the Mind to Enhance Leadership Intelligence

by Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D., © 2000
Published in The Spinal Column, Nelson-Marlborough Health Services, Nelson New Zealand, September, 2000


Once upon a time there was a 19th century French military officer who confronted people rioting in the town square. They were violently protesting because of persistent food shortages.

The officer rode into the town square on his magnificent horse, and he directed his well-armed troops to encircle the crowd. Once they were in position, he gave the command to raise rifles and take aim. Then, raising his arm to get ready for the "fire at will" command, the crowd grew silent. He then addressed the now-quiet rioters saying, "Tomorrow at this time there will be a meeting with provincial officials to peacefully discuss food shortages. I command all of the good, law-abiding citizens to leave the town square so that we can fire upon the criminals who are rioting. I'll give those of you who are good citizens a brief period of time to leave before we fire".

After making those comments, the entire crowd left the area. No shots were fired. No massacre ensued.

* * *

In this story, the values fulfilled were perhaps order, safety and non-violence. And values violations were minimised, especially compared to what could have happened. When people are shot and killed, that prime value of life is violated.

Values-based leadership is engaging in actions that bring about positive change. Intelligence is deep understanding of a situation. From a values-based perspective then, leadership intelligence comes from developing a deep understanding that enables a values-based leader to optimise behavior to do the following: bring about change to fulfill values in healthy ways while preventing or minimising harmful values violations.

Even without examining the specific presuppositions in the communication in this story, it is obvious to me that the officer demonstrated effective leadership. And underneath such actions are often sophisticated patterns of thinking. I believe that we can make some of these patterns of thinking explicit and learnable.

How would this officer have had to think, to come up with such a novel verbal solution to the problems inherent in the situation?

First, let's assume that before he encounters this situation, he wants to increase his operating leadership intelligence for dealing with it. Let's further imagine that the officer has some pre-knowledge of the situation's elements, such as these: There will be people rioting. They will not be armed with guns. If I show up with armed troops, they may want to listen to what I say to them.

Now with that pre-knowledge, let's imagine the officer prepares for the situation of rioting by doing what so many children do spontaneously - play acting. This is done by creating a theatre-like, inner stage to deepen his understanding of the situation. How would that work for him or for any of us? Within this inner stage, he would make an improvisational imaginary play as a way to enhance his understanding of the situation more deeply. (Personally, I think this is conscious version of what you and I do every night unconsciously - dreaming.)

He would be director of the play, directing himself to play all of the parts. He would be the play's writer, so he can try out different ideas in different scenes over different timeframes. And besides writing for, directing and playing the different characters in this "preparation play", he will also bring in several "VBL leadership intelligence enhancement characters" as well. These would be like the three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future in Dickens' A Christmas Carol. These characters would bring in various VBL thinking skills to help him along the way.

So the prime character in the play is the officer. The other regular characters might be

the officer's immediate superior
several armed soldiers
a child with his or her parent
several rioting adults
a passerby in the town square not involved in the riots


The VBL "advisor" characters would be parts played by imaginary individuals who would represent key leadership skills.

Integrity - Making a person integrated and whole

Empathy - Activating understanding and compassion for others by imagining their experiences

Analytical Thinking - Using a variety of lenses, in the form of metaphors and analogies to deeping insight

Objecivity - Stepping into the director's position to see and hear from the outside

Long-term Vision - Mentally travelling in time to imagine positive and negative future scenarios

Wide-angle Vision - Expanding one's sphere of leadership concern out in space to include other people and the environment

Leadership Cycle - Understanding and promoting positive cycles of interaction while preventing or stopping negative cycles of interaction

Seeing the Good in Others - Activating the spiritual values that help us see the good motives, intentions, and capabilities in others underneath less than good behaviour

These characters would come in a various times in the scenes, each being a character like the three ghosts in A Christmas Carol. They would advise the prime character, and the others as well, to use their specialised advice and counsel. He would pick someone he knew from fact or fiction to represent the skills of each character. (I might pick Star Trek character Counselor Troi for Empathy, Einstein for Analytical Thinking, Dr. Martin Luther King for Long Term Vision, the Dalai Lama for Seeing the Good in Others, etc.)

To start the inner play and begin preparing for the situation he would begin the play, imagining each of the characters in the play while being advised by the VBL skill characters. He would let playful intuition guide him.

He might become one of the soldiers with a gun and then talk with the spiritual, Seeing the Good in Others character. That would help prevent the soldiers from demonising the rioters.

He might play one of the rioters and experience their perspective in the situation, along with the feeling of hunger that pervades the body and ravages one's family.

He might play a passerby, innocent, but in danger.

He might play himself, the officer, and seek the counsel of Leadership Cycle, who will guide him to refrain from a negative, destructive chain of events, but rather to begin a positive cycle of events with a non-violent solution to food shortages.

He might, as the officer in charge, listen to Long-term Vision, to see the harmful future effects of firing on the people in the crowd and the positive effects of a non-violent solution.

Empathy might advise him to play the child and the child's parent and therefore sense the injustice and pain that would result from shooting them.

Certain VBL skills are built into the structure of the process of creating such a play, and rehearsing various scenarios and scenes. For example, being the director activates the officer's objectivity. Being the writer activates long-term vision and wide-angle vision as he examines characters and event-effects on others out in space and further in time. Empathy is activated each time the officer becomes another character.

The officer, after "playing" with the play for a while would eventually deepen his understanding of both harmful and healthy scenarios. Then he could find an optimum scenario that would play out positively for most, fulfilling their values while minimising or altogether preventing values violations.

Then, after all of this inner theatre work, he would find that his leadership intelligence had developed to discover his brilliant command to end the riot in a non-violent way.

It is under stress that we most need new choices. This theatre version of mental preparation is a fun way to activate knowledge and skills that can significantly enhance leadership intelligence. There is a long history of beneficial effects from playing out situations in this way. Since the dawn of literature and perhaps humanity, people have benefited from great plays like those of Shakespeare and others. Children spontaneously make improvisational plays. Certain socially advanced, non-violent tribal cultures, like the Mbuti in the African rain forest, use plays performed in the center of their villages to help resolve conflicts and heal relationships. (See The Human Cycle, by Colin Turnbull.)

Any of us can use our minds to create an inner theatre to create a context for deepening our understandings of people, events and to create various scenarios to find optimum solutions to upcoming situations. (Indeed we do it unconsciously each night.) By activating the theatre of the mind consciously, we can fulfill values and prevent or minimise harmful values violations. We make a transition from simple, narrow thinking to a kind of kaleidoscopic thinking that results in enhanced leadership intelligence. And any time we can prevent shots from being fired, whether they are real bullets or verbal ones, that's leadership intelligence in action.

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