Clowning around ….

Leadership lessons from Cirque du Soleil

We’ve started a new autumn Canadian tradition in my family.  No, we don’t head up north to the country-side to take in the Fall colours.  Instead, we patiently tackle the traffic congestion and venture to Le Grand Chapiteau in downtown Toronto for the colour and theatrics of a Cirque du Soleil show!

My first encounter with Cirque du Soleil came by way of an “employee year-end town hall” that I attended in December 2010.  I had taken on a new leadership role, and was leading a team of young millennials whose talent and drive more than made up for their lack of business work-experience.  Given that this was a bank employee town hall meeting, the focus of the event was on Cirque du Soleil – the business – although we were treated to a short 10 minute performance, as well.

I could not help but be completely drawn by the similarities between a circus (theatrical) company and a large corporation …. and even more specifically, the parallels between the role that a clown plays in a circus production and that of a great coach/leader!  And I was completely blown away when my team later gifted me with a “jester’s hat”!  Yes, I had a young team that loved “clowning around” and playing practical jokes.  The gift, however, was not given in jest to poke fun at my leadership style, but quite the opposite …. It was  given to me with genuine respect and appreciation.  This talented group of young professionals saw beyond the laughter and magic-acts, and recognized the leadership lessons shared by the clown during the mini-performance.

Business Lessons from the Circus

What started out as a relatively small troupe performing in Quebec in early-mid 1980’s, Cirque du Soleil (“Circus of the Sun”) has grown into the largest theatrical producer in the world!

Not unlike today’s “digital disruptors” with their scaled-down, customer-focused business models who are wreaking havoc on large corporations and traditional service-based business …. Cirque du Soleil was also a disruptor, changing the landscape for not only traditional circus-acts, but the broader theatrical production industry.

Cirque du Soleil opted to forego with performing animals which formed the core of traditional circus productions, and instead adopted a theatrical “character-driven” approach.  Interestingly, while audiences won’t see elephants, lions and tigers, Cirque (and other “nouveau cirque” acts) chose to keep the role of the clown as a central story-telling character.  

Key “leadership traits” we can learn from clowns:

1. Catalyst for Imagination:

Clowns represent “eternal optimism in the face of failures”.  Essentially, clowns are catalysts for our imagination and encourage us to overcome our fears of failure or rejection, and put our imagination into action!  Clowns do this by celebrating both failure and success!  The audience (and other actors present on the stage) cheer on the clown by way of laughter and applause, and encourage (not discourage) the clown to give it another try.

One of the things I’ve noticed during the Cirque du Soleil productions is that the greatest level of authentic two-way engagement between both performers and audience usually takes place during these acts featuring the show’s clown.  Audience members not only cheer on the clown, but occasionally are also called on to actively participate in the act.  The clown is not on his/her own ….. Performers and audience members come together as a team to encourage the clown in the face of failure.

Likewise, in business, role of a great coach and leader is to inspire team members to learn (not hide from) mistakes, to reach for new challenges and work together as a team towards success!  Teams cannot be afraid to fail.

2. Connecting the Dots:

Very early in my career as leader, my boss and mentor, shared some advice that has always stayed with me …. A great coach and leader isn’t striving to be the “MVP” or star of the team.  Instead, great leadership is about building a team of stars and MVPs who excel both individually and as a team on the playing field.  While occasionally it entails leading on the field, most valuable coaching lessons occur off the playing field.

In most, if not all, Cirque du Soleil shows, the acrobats are the true stars …. the audience marvels at their death-defying talent and artistry.  The clown’s role is primarily “between acts” …. To interact and engage with the audience and “weave together” the broader storyline and key messages for the audience.  Through humour and story-telling, the clown showcase the artists on stage, and engage and relate with the audience, to help bring the story to life!  

3. Rhythm and Timing: 

A key competency for any clown is what’s referred to as “pointe fixe(a good sense of rhythm and timing).  You’ll often see the clown interact and engage with the audience before the show begins.  The clown establishes a very real rapport with the audience – and often “sets the stage” for what’s to come …. Creating the overarching culture and vision for the show.

Great coaches have to interact with key leaders, they need to build trust and rapport with their teams, and they have to have a solid understanding of the broader environment (customers, competitors, etc.).  These relationships and contextual understanding helps the coach develop their own “cadence” or “playbook” for success!  A joke only works when it’s timed correctly.  Likewise, the pieces of the puzzle all need to fall in place at the right time and in the right way to truly build a winning team for bot short and long term success!

I genuinely look forward to autumn every year so that I can spend time with my family enjoying the latest and greatest Cirque du Soleil show.  Like everyone else in the audience, I am mezmorized by the amazing and awe-inspiring talent of the performances each and every year.  As a leader and coach, I also enjoy reflecting on the character of the clown in each of the shows ….Observing how they interact with the audience, how they leverage humour and story-telling to highlight the key themes and messages, and how they inspire courage to take on challenges in an attempt to make the impossible, possible!

And for all you leaders out there ….. Wear your jester’s hats with pride, I most certainly do!