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!  

 

Say yes to new adventures … Leadership insights from skydiving!

It’s curiousity that inspires us to conquer our fears, reach for new dreams, and explore new horizons!

You can smell the newness and energy in the air …. it’s “back to school season”.  For most, it’s that dreaded last long-weekend of the summer; for others, it marks the start of new adventures and challenges!  My favourite Labour Day memory is from 2009.  Together with a few friends, I decided to “take the plunge”, so to speak, and signed up for a skydiving experience of a lifetime!

You’re probably thinking “why would I ever take any advice (much less advice on leadership) from some risk-seeker who accepts a challenge and jumps out of a plane?!”  Well, the best lessons in life come from our experiences – both successes and failures – and that’s no different for lessons on leadership and coaching!

To quote the legendary Babe Ruth (who many consider as one of the greatest sports heros in American culture): “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.  Don’t let the fear of striking out hold you back”.  

As you can see from the photos of my skydiving adventure, the view of the earth from above is absolutely breathtaking …. and experiencing this was beyond anything I could have ever imagined!  We sometimes confine ourselves (and limit our goals/dreams) to what’s in our peripheral vision. Skydiving helped open my eyes to the unlimited possibilities and opportunities that were achievable by conquering fears, embracing challenges and being open to new ideas and experiences!

Without risk, there is no reward!  Success requires the bravery to both conquer our fears and turn our dreams into reality!  As a leader or coach, this means ensuring your team is encouraged to grow and evolve – or better said, do not feel discouraged from trying new things and making mistakes.

This is especially true today, in this digital age of “disruption”, where customers/technology/markets are constantly evolving, and businesses are being disintermediated by the next great “app”!

Change leadership is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s essential.  Be a distruptor (i.e.: be open to change) or face disruption!  On paper, this seems like a no-brainer.  However, in practice, we know that change is not at all easy.

The two most powerful motivators for momentum in any change initiative are fear and inspiration.

Fear:

Most are probably reading this and saying, “nope, that’s not me”!  Well, truth be told, fear is most often the starting point for most change.  Fear is a powerful motivator …. it’s a catalyst for action!  Today, “threat of disruption and disintermediation” have become new rallying cries and momentum builders for change initiatives across many organizations.

The irony is that fear disrupts true creativity!  With fear, we are motivated to take action and find a solution (which is definitely a good thing) …. The caveat though, is that often the solution we are seeking is one that takes us back to our “comfort zone”.

Using a sports analogy, it’s like running on a track …. Fear is that starting pistol that gets us off the ground and moving forward.  In actuality, we’re not moving forward per se, but running (or racing) away from the initial starting block and then we take a circular pattern and run towards the finish line, which ironically happens to be the same point that we initially started from!

Going back to my skydiving adventure …. I absolutely loved skydiving, it truly is an experience that I will always remember vividly.  But, as much as I conquered a challenge (fear), the truth is, I’ve never been motivated (inspired) to try it again!  For me, skydiving was about conquering a fear, not inspiration to achieving a goal!

Inspiration:

Inspiration breeds curiousity … curiousity leads you to new paths and goals.  It’s akin to running a marathon rather than running on a track.  It’s a slower start, and we are no longer racing away from a starting block but instead are moving forward and running toward a new path.  And as in all marathons, there are pitfalls and stops along the way … we stop for nourishment (which serves as encouragement for our bodies and minds) and we occasionally even stumble or stop/slow down for a breather.

Going back to skydiving ….  My greatest insight that I’ve taken away from the experience didn’t come from the jump itself, but on the preparation prior to the jump.  Those of you who have skydived would understand.  It’s all about the preparation before the jump …. the physical, mental and emotional prep, and ensuring you have the right equipment and tools for the jump itself!   I remember vividly sitting on the plane before my jump (I was the first jumper in our flight/cohort).  It took physical strength and endurance to sit steady and positioned at the ledge of the plane fighting the wind, and waiting for the go-ahead.  It also took mental stamina to withstand the butterflies in my stomach and million thoughts (anxiousness, fear, excitement) running through my head.  [Note: “Included in the gallery are a few photos of my skydiving preparation]

How does this relate to inspiration and change ….?

We need to be more than just leaders, we need to be coaches!  We need to focus on skill-building to ensure our teams have the relevant skills required to position themselves for success both today and more importantly, for tomorrow ….. and, we need to BUILD MENTAL READINESS by inspiring and motivating our teams to constantly strive to grow and improve!  Mental readiness and curiousity does not evolve from fear, but inspiration!

To truly inspire, we need to make it safe for our teams to take on new challenges and goals … and yes, to fail!  Our goal, as leaders, should be to inspire and develop “curiosity” in our teams.  It’s not just about creating a culture of innovation “for the sake of innovation”, but for a broader purpose and vision.

For me, creating this safety zone included leading by example, which included being open and transparent about my own experiences (successes, failures, and learnings).  As an authentic leader, I didn’t try and create any illusions about the end state – after all, with any change, there’s no guarantee what the change is going to result in. Instead of focusing on the outcome (the what), I focused on the journey … and sought to create a sense of excitement about the journey and experience ahead!

One of my absolute favourite quotes is from William Arthur Ward:  “The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”  Speeches, videos, books and courses are good …. they serve as a kick-starter, but real change is not a “once and done” event, but a journey.  And journeys involve traveling and experiencing together …. not simply “showing” (photos) and “telling” (events/stories).  A picture may be worth a 1000 words, but an experience is the real thing!

To close, true change leadership comes from inspiring and rewarding curiousity, and not simply motivating through fear …..  After all, it’s curiousity that inspires us to conquer our fears, reach for new dreams and explore new horizons!  At the end of the day curiousity and inspiration trump fear!