Masks for leadership development in a business school.

It began with a disaster.

Confused, angry MBA students. Even some complaints to the module leader and the MBA Director, about yet another inappropriate, irrelevant teaching experiment, use of students by staff as ‘guinea pigs’, while paying expensive fees for the privilege.

From Mike Chase mask set: 'The Temperaments'

Choleric: from Mike Chase mask set: ‘The Temperaments’

Me: bruised, disappointed, humiliated….

After all that hard work… To secure a Westminster Business School (WBS) teaching and learning grant to buy masks from maskmaker Mike Chase. To research and carefully design the workshop for a professional development module for MBA students, using tried and tested theatrical maskwork techniques and exercises that I know from experience are useful for actors. Using Mike’s sets of masks based on ‘The Temperaments’ and ‘The Planets’, masks he has used in the past in workshops for therapeutic and leadership development purposes.

All that hard work and persistence to persuade colleagues in WBS from very different professional backgrounds to myself, as to why and how this could add pedagogical value, how this unorthodox approach could help MBA students to develop soft skills for leadership.
Yet for me, and for many of the bewildered, and angry MBA participants – a painful disaster…..

Melancholic: from Mike Chase mask set: The Temperaments

Melancholic: from Mike Chase mask set: The Temperaments

However, amongst all the pain, some small glimmers of agreement and some positive, encouraging feedback from some students and staff, that amongst all this somewhere, they could see how, perhaps, we might on to something, that could be of relevance and value for them….

Phlegmatic: from Mike Chase mask set: The Temperaments

Phlegmatic: from Mike Chase mask set: The Temperaments

Why theatrical masks in a business school? Why persistently pursue a pedagogical approach so apparently alien to this current business school cultural context? With groups of learners who have never performed as actors and would never want to do so?

Of course, we know masks have been successfully used by actors, for learning, training and performance, in a long, familiar tradition stretching back through 20th Century practitioners like Copeau (1931), St Denis (1982), Brook (1987), Fo (1987), LeCoq (2002), Mnouchkine (Feral, 1989), etc, back through the Commedia Dell’Arte tradition (Rudlin, 1994), ancient Greek theatre and beyond (Wiles, 2007). Practitioner sources and research literature also suggest masks have been used successfully more recently with learners in a variety of non-theatrical contexts, such as in counselling (Trepal-Wollenzier & Wester, 2002), psychotherapy (Janzing, 1998), drama therapy & psychodrama (Landy, 1986) and in leadership development (Hughes, 2009).

From working in a business school and in commercial organisations in leadership assessment and development as an organisational psychologist, I have also realised, that often the soft-skills learning gains most valued by senior leaders and business students with whom I have worked, come not just from my Psychology disciplinary knowledge, but from previously working as an actor and actor trainer: from actor process, role inhabitation, performance, and even transformation and interaction in masks.

So from the above knowledge and experience, I would suggest that working with theatrical masks can also help learners to achieve learning outcomes that are commonly seen as valuable in a business context, e.g to:

• Develop some core components of Emotional Intelligence identified as important for success in leading and working with others (Goleman, 2004), e.g. self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, social skills.
• Actively explore and analyse social interactions with others from multiple perspectives, to develop empathy, critical thinking, and open up and practice alternative possibilities for future action.
• Gain a deeper understanding of individual differences in personality and culture, in order to more effectively recognise and work with these differences in leading and working with others.
• Increase awareness of unconscious bias and prejudice and the impact of this on our decision making and interactions with others.
• Increase enjoyment and engagement with learning activities and with more active, embodied and experiential learning. Move from ‘surface’ to ‘deeper’ approaches to learning (Ramsden, 1992)
• Release inhibitions and enhance physical expressiveness, creativity, daring, spontaneity and play

Trying to encourage and support learners to gain the above benefits in a business context, in comparison to theatrical contexts, using masks, can be sometimes very challenging. However, through further development of this work, my recent efforts have become much more successful, with staff and student learners in this context recently indicating that they have found this work to be valuable for them, in terms of the kind of potential learning gains, outlined above.

So what’s changed in what I’m doing? What have I learnt that may be helpful for others?

Sanguine: from Mike Chase mask set: The Temperaments

Sanguine: from Mike Chase mask set: The Temperaments

Well there’s lots of valuable ongoing learning developing from all this, but some key main lessons I’ve found to make this work more successfully, in this particular context, for these types of learners, are:

• Keep spelling out the relevance of every single learning activity and the potential business benefits to be gained for the participants, explicitly tailored and framed as much as possible to their particular points of reference, individual business and career aims, needs, ambitions, motivations, experience and practice, personality preferences and values. This of course is in line with much pedagogical theory and research about curriculum design with post-experience and adult learners e.g. Knowles, 1984.

• Depending of course on the intended learning outcomes; don’t do a lot of the approaches and exercises that might work with actors and/or assume that these will be automatically be successful with these types of learners. Narrow the range and clearly and explicitly lock down the focus, scope, learning objectives, parameters, possible choices, tasks, directions and opportunities offered within the workshop, much more than may be necessary or desirable with actors, so that in every step of the way through the session all this is very clearly and specifically bounded, defined and justified. For example, in earlier workshops with these groups of learners, I did a lot of what I might do with actors, opening up and encouraging opportunities for free, unstructured, divergent approaches and creative play, risk-taking, experimentation and spontaneity, with lots of different masks offered to freely experiment with and choose from. However, a particular exercise or technique that can be for an actor a glorious invitation, vehicle and opportunity for fun and free play, to be spontaneous, to be inventive and to explore and to journey into new exciting territory, can be for many non-actor learners, particularly business students – confusing, irrelevant, useless, inhibiting and threatening. Whereas, learners in the business context have found it much less threatening and more enabling when the range of masks to be explored and the freedom and flexibility offered by learning activities is severely reduced. E.g. to just the four Temperaments masks clearly and explicitly explained and defined as specific Jungian personality types (rather than medieval Humours or more esoteric Steiner archetypes), with well-defined characteristics and behaviours, explicitly linked to relevant, clearly explained and well-known theory and research (e.g. Jungian personality theory, e.g. the MBTI, Insights personality model and questionnaire, etc). In order to then enable learners to recognise, generate and practice strategies, within clearly set sociodrama method parameters, for leading and working effectively with these different personality preferences in themselves and others.

• Make sure I constrain my impulses from my background of being an actor and actor trainer to strive necessarily to encourage learners towards fuller physical transformation, mask inhabitation, and to make a mask ‘work’ in a theatrical sense. To achieve the kind of learning benefits and outcomes for business students outlined earlier in this post, this is usually unnecessary and can also be very counter-productive, even if it is precisely what many learning activities that one draws from the existing theatrical mask tradition and canon are aimed to facilitate.

• Integrate and link, in as many explicit ways as possible, the novel learning activities and content covered using masks, with other content and learning activities with which they are familiar and have already engaged, elsewhere in the curriculum. For example, with recent workshops I have designed learning activities to directly extend and explicitly build on learning I know these learners have already gained about personality preferences and leadership in other MBA modules and the exercises we have done in them, e.g. when previously doing personality questionnaires such as the MBTI and Insights, sessions sharing psychological knowledge about personality and leadership, reflective blogging activities, assessments, etc. This need for strong integration in the learning design with other activities and content experienced by the learners elsewhere in the curriculum, has much in common with what I have learnt from experiences getting HE students to engage with other types of novel and unfamiliar learning activities, such as when introducing new online learning activities as part of a ‘flipped classroom’ and/or blended approach (Bishop & Verleger, 2013).

• Avoid approaches and learning activities aimed at moving towards facilitating ‘mask as possession’, e.g. as in some of the mask tradition from Copeau, or perhaps rather Copeau via Johnstone (1979), etc. Despite the extraordinary experiences and learning gains that some of us may have experienced from this ‘mask as possession’ approach as practitioners, this is usually irrelevant and often counterproductive to encourage learners in a business context to engage in, in order to achieve the learning outcomes mentioned previously in this post.

There is of course a lot more learning and questions arising out of this work than these few points outlined above. Questions like: e.g. how can this be developed as a pedagogical approach that can be more widely and productively accessed by a wider range of teachers in HE, and not just be restricted to a small elite of those who have specialist knowledge of theatrical mask work. E.g. how can this be developed further and where and how else can this be used, in the business school environment and more widely in HE for soft skills development? E.g. what of this work using masks for soft skills development e.g. negotiating personality differences in group work, could also benefit those training in HE to be professional actors? E.g. what is it exactly that actor-learners tend to bring to mask workshops in terms of skills, attitude, knowledge and capabilities, that enable them to gain so much from their work, that developing business leaders (e.g. MBA students) tend not to bring proactively into a similar workshop situation and perhaps should? Etc…
At the moment I’m taking this work further into a research project for the academic year 2016-17, aimed at developing this pedagogical approach collaboratively with staff and students using Appreciative Inquiry as a research methodology, which could also encompass staff and students as participants from other organisations and HEI’s, beyond the University of Westminster. So if anyone is interested to know more about this work, and/or to be a participant in the research, or just to share thoughts about what you have done with your teaching and learning in this area, and/or any ideas or disagreements related to any of the thoughts above, etc, please do feel free to get in contact with me, via a comment on this post or my email address below.

Andy Peisley,
Senior Lecturer in Leadership & Professional Development, WBS, University of Westminster
[email protected]

Bishop, J. L., & Verleger, M. A. (2013) The Flipped Classroom: A Survey of the Research, American Society for Engineering Education
Brook, P. (1987). The Shifting Point. London: Methuen.
Copeau (1931) cited in Rudlin, J. (1986). Jacques Copeau. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Feral, J. (1989). Mnouchkine’s workshop at the Soleil. Drama Review, 33, 4, 77-87
Fo, Dario. (1987). The Tricks of the Trade. London: Routledge.
Goleman, D. (2004). What makes a leader. Harvard Business Review, 1, 82-91
Hughes, S. (2011). The leadership mask: a personally focused art based learning enquiry into facets of leadership. Reflective Practice: International & Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 12, 3, 305-317.
Janzing, H. (1998). The use of the mask in psychotherapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 25, 151-.157.
Johnstone, K. (1979). Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. London: Faber & Faber.
Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in Action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Landy, R.J. (1985). The image of the mask: Implications for theatre and therapy. Journal of Mental Imagery, 9(4), 43-56
LeCoq, J. (2002). The Moving Body: Teaching Creative Theatre. Translated from Le Corps Poetique by David Bradbury. London: Bloomsbury Methuen.
Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teaching in Higher Education London: Routledge.
Rudlin, J. (1994). Commedia dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook. London: Routledge.
Saint Denis, M. (1982). Training for the Theatre, ed. Suria Magito Saint-Denis. New York: Theatre Arts Books.
Trepal-Wollenzier, H.C. & Wester, K.L. (2002). The use of masks in counselling. Journal of Clinical Activities, Assignments & Handouts in Psychotherapy Practice, 2,2, 123-130
Wiles, D. (2007). Mask and Performance In Greek Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pictures of all versions of both sets of masks can be viewed at