Vacations: Valuable leadership lessons from my travels!

“Travel is one of the only things you buy that makes you richer”.

It’s that time of the year …. summer vacation season!  Vacations provide us with that ever so precious opportunity to rest, relax and “recharge our batteries”.   As that old saying goes, “travel is one of the only things you buy that makes you richer“.  For me, this truly has been the case, as some of my most valuable lessons in leaderships have come from my travels.

Self-Awareness:

travel blog 2Very early on in my career as a leader, I travelled to Hawaii for a family wedding.  I am one of those “eager beavers” who wants to do everything, and does not want to miss out on any experience.  My vacation in Hawaii was no different …. wedding festivities, snorkelling, sightseeing, beach-time, luau, surf lessons, hiking, biking.  I wanted to do it all, and I almost did!  Midway through my vacation, I signed up for a sunrise bike ride down Haleakala Volcano.  Ordinarily, it would be no big deal, however, my carpel tunnel had been flaring up.  Now, I absolutely do not regret signing up for the bike adventure at all.  What I do regret is not taking a “brief pause” (10 – 15 minutes on the bus) to rest my wrist and fingers.  Yes, you guessed it …. as a result of the flare-up, I had trouble with the hand brakes and ended up in a bike accident which resulted in considerable injuries.  Not fun!

A key leadership trait that all leaders must have is self-awareness.  Leaders need to be in-tune with their strengths and weaknesses … and the implications of these on their goals, the team and the broader organization/community.

Shortly after returning from my vacation in Hawaii, I took on my first management role leading a department of seasoned professionals.  My experience in Hawaii taught me that I do not need to “do it all” up-front.  Although I was a rookie leader with a lot to learn, I stepped into the role with confidence.  I was aware of my strengths and how I could contribute and add value to the team and our business.  I was equally aware of my weaknesses, and I leveraged my teammates and colleagues to learn and successfully grow.

Resilience and Positive Attitude:

travel blog 3Although you may not have experienced this personally, odds are that many of you know of someone who has had the unfortunate experience of being robbed while on vacation.  Yup … this happened to me!  Day 1 (in fact, hour 1) of my vacation in Portugal, and my purse was stolen – and with it, my passport, wallet, everything!

A range of emotions came upon me: devastation, self-pity, anger (both at myself for letting it happen and at the perpetrators), frustration, guilt (for my friends travelling with me and impact this would have on their plans/enjoyment) …. and eventually, determination!   Yes my possessions were stolen, but I was not going to let the thieves rob me of my spirit.  I was determined to have fun and make the most of my time in Portugal and refused to let the incident define my vacation …. I owed this to myself and my travel companions.  Thankfully, this positive attitude and resiliency paid off, as we all had an absolutely amazing time in Portugal and met a lot of helpful and kind-hearted people along the way!

This “let’s make the best of it” attitude that we all display when we’re on vacation (dealing with jet-lag, flight delays, muscle aches, navigational challenges, etc.) is even more impactful and important in our everyday lives.

Great leadership is about leading through turbulence and adversity!  As leaders, we need to accept that we cannot always control the “what”, but we do own the “how” …. Attitude and resiliency is everything!

Embracing Failure and Navigating Ambiguity:

travel blog 4If you’re like me, you will find yourself constantly “re-routing” in your travels.  I could be following my GPS/Google Maps directions to a tee, yet I still manage to find myself off-course every now and then.  However, travelling has taught me to “find the value in getting lost”.  If I did not have to re-route than I would have missed out on some of my most memorable experiences in my travels ….  being entertained by local Bahamian children at their school Christmas concert in the town square, missing my train and instead enjoying the best meal in a small family run restaurant in Prague, experiencing a cultural celebration in a small square as I was exploring zouks in Morocco, etc. etc..  I’ve learned that there is so much more to see and experience than you could ever find in a travel guide book.

In every case, no matter where I travelled, I’ve learned that the journey is as important as the destination itself!  The key for me has been to apply this learning at home as well. First, by putting away the strategic plans and playbooks and taking the time to “be in the trenches” with employees, customers and partners so that I can truly understand things from their perspective.

As leaders, the onus is on us to inspire innovation and growth by creating a culture that encourages curiosity and embraces creativity – and yes, even failure! And we can do this by taking the lead and not being afraid to embrace it ourselves!

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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!