In what ways do we as leaders hold ourselves back?
It’s a critically important question, one we don’t often ask. When we do, we mostly ask it in hindsight, and often in crisis mode. By then it’s too late, and any answers we might find are already past their expiration dates.
What if instead we began as if we were not held back and instead already in the place we hoped to be — with the knowledge we need, or the title or with the permission to act? In other words, what if we — as award-winning actor Michael Keaton put it — simply moved forward as if we “already had the job”?
Sometimes our biggest hurdle isn’t ability. It isn’t commitment or desire. And it isn’t worth — that odd thing we give far too much credit. Sometimes it’s keeping ourselves from simply stepping into the “adjacent possible” with the confidence that “we already have the gig.” (More on the adjacent possible in a moment.) That’s where Keaton’s simple yet powerful insight comes into play.
Lessons for leaders from Michael Keaton
If you’re old enough, you remember Keaton from his hilarious television appearances on Saturday Night Live and the Mary Tyler Moore Show, or in early films like Nightshift and Mr. Mom. None of those rings a bell? Well, how about the movie Bettlejuice, or his spin as one of the many batmen? Sort of familiar, you say, but not quite? Perhaps his recent turns in Birdman, Spotlight and Dopesick make you finally sit up and say, oh yes, that talented actor who always seems to convey an onscreen confidence like few do.
The truth is, Keaton has had quite a career, one with tremendous highs, and some deep lows, some so low he dropped out of sight. In an interview with the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, Keaton was asked about what allowed him to rise up again and again, almost phoenix-like. His response? “I began to show up as though I already had the job. I just went to work.”
It’s a tough go to be an actor. Even after the victory of a highly acclaimed film, the industry demands you apply for the job all over again. You go to the auditions, where everyone but you seems to have the power, and you try to prove you’re good enough. In an odd mental twist, that then becomes your focus in every sense — this strange movement backwards in your brain, in which you begin to believe you’re just a newly minted actor on their first day, not someone with experience no resume can capture fully.
It occurs in part because you yield agency to others. You question what will suit the director and producer gods today, trying to compile what you hope is the right combination — in their eyes. You worry, you question your ability, you show up and more than any actor wants to admit, you often don’t get the job. But Keaton does. Every time, he says. Why? Because he goes in as though he already has it.
“Going to work,” Keaton says, the audition, or rehearsal or even make-up, “that’s the gig.” In his view, he’s not auditioning, he’s already doing the job. Keaton shows up to whatever work is and does what he has spent decades crafting — his best. He’s not waiting for a green light; he’s not waiting to be judged. He’s wading into the next scene, the next project and in doing so, perpetually into the possibility of what’s next.
Leaning into the “adjacent possible”
Keaton has become a master of the adjacent possible — it’s a phrase coined by chaos theorist and MacArthur Fellow Stu Kaufman. What it says is that what’s actually possible isn’t some theoretical thing far away and out of our immediate reach, but something that begins adjacent to where you are right now. All you have to do is to be willing to put a toe out of your comfort zone and into the adjacent possible to see and seize what’s there. The more you do, the more adept you become.
Keaton may not use the term adjacent possible, but that is exactly what he’s exploring, habitually. He skips being fraught over whether or not he’s good enough, worthy, or has the goods, and just applies what he has and what he knows to who he is in this moment: the guy who, at least in his mind, already has the job. It’s precisely what all of us do when we do have the job. Keaton just chooses to eliminate the constraining difference that’s mostly just in our heads.
While a man of few words, Keaton’s approach reflects a blend of two things he’s famously said. The first, is about keeping things simple and clear. “In the household in which I was raised,” Keaton said, “the themes were pretty simple. ‘Work hard. Don’t quit. Be appreciative, be thankful, be grateful, be respectful. Also, never whine, never complain. And always, for crying out loud, keep a sense of humor.’” Note: none of those are in the hands of others. As the old Nike ad once put it, you just do it. Then there’s what you do with it. “There’s a theory,” says Keaton, “that you live in two places: You either live in fear, or you live in love.”
It certainly isn’t fear for Michael Keaton, which may be why he loves what he does. And so do we.
Larry Robertson, named a Fulbright scholar in 2021, is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. He’s the author “The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity,” “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress” and the new “Rebel Leadership: How To Thrive in Uncertain Times.”