Run Your Library Like A Circus

Maybe you think your academic library is already being run like a circus, especially the kind with crazy clowns running around spritzing everyone with seltzer bottles and lots of uncontrolled chaos on the side. If that’s the case, good luck. I’m going to bring a different circus to your attention in this post – the Cirque du Soleil. The Cirque du Soleil is as much about art and beauty as it is pure entertainment with some gifted individuals putting on an incredible show. But there are also some leadership lessons we can all learn from the world’s truly unique circus. I found these ideas worth sharing in an interview that world renowned designer David Rockwell conducted with Lyn Heward, creative director at Cirque du Soleil, for the magazine Contract.

The Show is the Star: You’ll never see a list of the individual performers on a Cirque du Soleil program. The performers have decided it is all about teamwork and collaboration. You’ve got to have incredibly talented individuals, but unless everyone agrees that the show is the star it all falls apart. Unless you’re a team player you don’t last long at this circus.

The Team Needs Visionary Leadership: The circus has players from all over the world; many different cultural backgrounds. There are also many supporting personnel, like set designers and prop makers, who must fit in the mix. What brings and holds all the differences together at the circus is a visionary director. The director conceives the overall show and shapes it by understanding who each person is and how each likes to work. A good director needs to be inspirational, but must be better at getting the artists to inspire each other.

Create the Right Environment: When you bring together creative people you need to give them a stimulating place to work. The environment should almost be playground like. An innovative circus grows out of a playful, spirited environment.

Staff Development Encourages Change: No one wants a stale circus; it has to constantly evolve and change. That depends on artists constantly pushing themselves to re-think their acts. At this circus the artists are sent to workshops. They listen to the audience feedback. They are encouraged to go out and try new things, and visit and study other shows and circus acts.

Feedback Improves the Circus: A circus can be a bit more unpredictable than a library but both are subject to unforeseen events and challenges, and both depend on technology that requires rapid adaptation. At Cirque du Soleil the team regularly meets to receive feedback from the director. Together they talk about the uncertainties and risks, and how, as a team, the circus must make sure the show always goes on.

The Circus is an Evolutionary Process: Every new season of the circus is invented from the ground up so there is enormous risk involved, but the entire operation is seen as one continuum. New shows evolve from the old ones so risk is mitigated. The circus spreads out risk over time, and when they do invent it always begins with solid research.

Let the Performers Lead the Way to the Future
: What keeps the circus exciting is the pressure to constantly diversify itself. Cirque isn’t static and it constantly thinks beyond the constraints of the traditional “big top” thinking about what a circus should be. What moves it into the future is encouraging and challenging the artists to take risks and develop new acts. As they say at Cirque “risk-taking is the sum total of the risk taken by the individuals on the team.”

So if your library seems to sometimes function more like a circus than a library, well, maybe that’s a good thing. But if you are going to emulate a circus as your organizational model, you may as well make it the Cirque do Soleil. After all, as Rockwell reminds the reader, many of us, at one time or another, wanted to grow up and run away with the circus.

6 thoughts on “Run Your Library Like A Circus”

  1. It’s an interesting analogy, but only really makes sense if your organization has a single goal. Cirque’s single goal is to entertain. Nothing more. That they have an audience of literally all ages, and use music, art, dance, special effects, acrobatics, comedy, etc. indeed shows diversity but it all serves a single focused purpose: to entertain. It’s much easier for people to be creative and do all of the things listed above when the goal is crystal clear and incontrovertible. I don’t think anyone can say so about a library. If you disagree, tell me what you think the goal and purpose of your library is – and also how your own job contributes to that goal. Now, do you think everyone in your library would agree with your statement and do you think they are clear about how their environment/director helps them contribute to that goal? I’m not saying it’s not possible, I just believe that libraries do not have the single endeavor focus that a circus does. That said, I do agree with the statement that if you are going to emulate a circus as an organizational model, Cirque du Soleil is the gold standard.

  2. Steve – no I can’t imagine a library with a single goal but I don’t agree that a circus has only one goal either. Their goals would include things like increasing attendance, improving the efficiency of the accounting process, adding 2 new acts each year, etc – just like you’d find a set of goals in a library strategic plan. You might be asking the wrong question if we are talking about a single focused purpose. In that case the question is “What business are we in” – and for the circus – as you point out – the answer would be “We are in the entertainment business” – although some might say we are in the enlightenment business or the family togetherness business. I do agree that not everyone in the library would agree on what business the library is in. I would say that our library is in the education business. But a colleague might say we are in the information business. Another might say we are in the knowledge business. I’ve heard all of these in answer to the question. I think it is important for the library staff to come together to agree on what our core values are and how that ties into what business we are in – and that should guide our actions. All that aside, I still think the advice that comes from the Cirque du Soleil is still of value for library leaders at all levels – especially the value of having a solid team of performers that constantly thinks about giving a great experience and innovating to reach new heights. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. The goal of my library is to support the college curriculum. Period, full stop. We do a lot of things where that’s not the immediate benefit – in fact, we’re a merged organization, so that includes not only supporting research and documenting the college history, but also running the college network and ERP system. But the main goal is supporting the curriculum, and if we can’t draw a pretty direct line between an activity and that goal, we think hard about stopping the activity.

    My job? I manage departmental liaisons. I try to equip them with the tools and knowledge to collect the right materials, answer the right reference questions, engage with faculty in instruction, effectively use technology – for the curriculum. I forecast, request, and oversee the budget – for the curriculum. Sometimes, these things also touch on faculty research or other college business, and like the folks who run the box office or advertising for Cirque, I trust – no, I encourage – that those things ultimately enhance the curriculum as well.

    Do I think my whole organization understands this? Most of the time. Certainly they know that’s the official drumbeat. It gets hard when your job doesn’t touch the classroom directly, but only through the ripples extending from your activity. It also gets hard when you have to explain that there are some good activities which we can’t support, because personal research (or general bibliophilia) is not our primary mission.

    Every library has a core constituency. The constituency may have multiple needs, but it’s our job to articulate an understanding of those needs as priorities. What I find difficult is imagining how libraries (or programs within libraries) continue to exist which don’t share in the constituency’s core mission.

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