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.