Developing a Performance Culture Part II

In our previous article, Developing A Performance Culture, we explored what business can learn from the performing arts. We asked you to think about a time when you perhaps sang in a choir or played in a band or orchestra; performed in a play or musical or did a stand-up routine. When we perform like that, we are fully engaged. Our energy is our performance. It is impossible to deliver a disengaged performance. (Well, it is possible, but the performance will bomb and the fear of ‘dying’ usually energises us!)

We also talked about the ensemble mindset of all great performers: the way they know that the quality of their own performance depends on the quality of the support that they get from their fellow artists. Great performers actively want their fellow performers to be great. They work hard to help them put on a brilliant performance of their own, so that the whole ensemble can feed off the resulting energy and new ideas.

We imagined how well businesses could run if they developed a ‘performance culture’ in which team members behaved like a top-flight ensemble, pouring their energy into a barnstorming performance, with everyone working together to put on the best show they are capable of.

In the previous article, we set out 5 questions that businesses can usefully ask themselves about their own ‘performance’:

What play are we in and what is our role?
Where is our theatre of action?
Have we built a trusting, connected partnership or ensemble?
Are we rehearsing creatively?
Do we know what inputs are creating our outputs?

Here are a further 5 interesting questions from the arts that can throw light on our business performance cultures.

Do we have the right people in the room?

Many business decisions are taken in the absence of the people who will be influenced by that decision and the people whose help is needed to turn that decision into reality. We tend to rely too much on ‘protagonists’ – a handful of business leaders – and assume that they are capable of acting successfully on their own. Decisions that are taken in our boardrooms supposedly ‘cascade down’ the imaginary pyramids of our organisational structures. In reality, of course, these top-down sets of instruction tend to become garbled and misunderstood as they cascade down; they also tend to encounter some real-life glitches that – funnily enough – someone further ‘down’ the hierarchical pyramid would have spotted immediately.

To make well-informed decisions, and to be sure that ideas hatched in the boardroom can be turned into reality throughout the organisation, we need to develop business cultures that actively involve the whole organisation. Delivery men and women need to talk to finance directors; engineers need to spend time with marketeers; managing directors need to spend time with check-out assistants. These different voices bring different and entirely valid perspectives that must be heard, and may be revelatory. In healthy organisational cultures, this is already happening. But we still take some major decisions in rooms where everyone is a protagonist and there are no ‘supporting roles’ present. As our colleague, Piers Ibbotson, teaching fellow at the UK’s Warwick University business school and an ex-Royal Shakespeare Company actor and director says, ‘It is exactly like trying to put on a production of Hamlet with a room full of Hamlets’.

The play, Hamlet, cannot be understood without the presence of the Ghost, the Queen, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio, the soldiers, servants, players, gravediggers and all the rest of the cast. Every character – and everyone who contributes to the overall performance – affects the performance as a whole. If the stage directions say, ‘A flourish of trumpets and ordnance shot off, within’, the technical guys need to be sure they can deliver this before Horatio, startled, turns to Hamlet and asks, ‘What does this mean my lord?’ If Horatio waits in vain for the trumpets and cannons, abandons hope and turns to Hamlet to ask, desperately, ‘What does this mean, my lord?’ only for the trumpets and canons suddenly to blare and thunder out, drowning Hamlet’s reply – then the performance has descended into farce. It’s the same with business cultures; everything has to work together. The devil is in the detail more than the strategy.

If we hope to put on winning business performances, we need to get the right people in the room and let them ‘rehearse’ different scenarios in search of the best solution. Allowing a room full of Hamlets to make all key decisions is a recipe for disaster.

Where is the art in what we do?

It’s one thing to be technically proficient; outstanding performances are also artistically wonderful.

Great painters, dancers and musicians are, first and foremost, masters of their craft, and this enables them to perform in a way that lifts their work beyond excellence and turns it into something uplifting and transformational. Technical mastery is merely the starting point at which it becomes possible to develop real artistry. Top performances are technically near-perfect, by definition. Winning performances are ‘works of art’.
We may be at the top of our game in finance, sales, management or engineering; design or coding; marketing or manufacturing. Our organisation may be producing great products or services. But here’s the question: we may be technically brilliant, but are we aesthetically wonderful? Where is the art in what we do?

ballet dancer colour don quixote
Turning Technical Perfection Into Art

We use aesthetic judgements to a far greater extent than we tend to acknowledge. In the face of real complexity, there are many possible solutions, all of which resist simple analysis – just as there are an infinite number of ways of performing any great work of theatre or music, some more successful, aesthetically, than others. We recognise when artists have succeeded in lifting something out of the merely technically excellent and are delivering an outstanding performance because, as human beings, we are all moved and affected in the same way; what the performers are doing reaches out and touches us. We make the same judgements about businesses: we recognise when businesses are trying hard to engage with us and make us happy. The world of business is not different from other fields of human endeavour – it can’t be reduced to sets of formulae, whatever the management consultants may say. It is our uniquely human and creative input that creates a winning performance. The question for all of us, increasingly, is: ‘Are our solutions beautiful enough to succeed?’

Is our leadership shared, allowed and passed around?

In business, as in life, we feel the urge to control things. The world is messy and dangerous, and we feel safer when we have imposed order on it. This is not foolish, but there is a trade-off to be made. When we have complete order, there is no messy creativity or excited inspiration; when we have complete control, there are no happy surprises.

Ensembles are directed, not controlled. Leadership in the ensemble is shared, allowed, and passed around. The result is a far more dynamic system that that represented by established, static models of leadership, with their rigid hierarchies of command and control.

This shared power is also exhilarating. It provides a great proportion of the joy that performing artists find in performance. I set out in one direction, but your idea is slightly different. As we work together, in the moment, to find the best solution, we share in the joy of creativity. We are both equal before the task of producing something new and, hopefully, wonderful. If anyone attempts to force a solution on the ensemble, this becomes like ‘push-pull’ in a dancing partnership: if one dancer tries to impose his or her will on the other – if their ‘lead’ is not accepted – their partner ends up being ‘pushed around’. In dance as in business, this is horrid.

Successful directors nudge and ‘bend’ the performance of ensembles in the desired direction. They recognise that, while they may be in a position of power, it is the organisation that holds the force. In order to drive creativity and inspiration, they offer constraints rather than restraints. The key phrase is not, ‘Do not do this or that’, but rather, ‘What happens if we try it this way?’

The ‘leader as theatre director’ enables and guides the performance of the ensemble but will not be part of the performance itself. Their leadership has quite literally been passed on to the performers, who must now take to the boards on their own to interpret the vision that was forged in rehearsal, observed and guided by the director.

The ‘leader as conductor’ remains very much a part of the ensemble, ‘leading from the front.’ The ensemble takes its cue from the embodied leadership of the conductor, creating a performance in which leader and ensemble are inextricably linked. There is an interesting corollary to this approach to leadership, which is that the leader of the moment must bring their unique personality to bear on the task, otherwise their contribution is meaningless. Offering a lead while pretending to be someone else is simply perverse. This is the real meaning of ‘authentic’ leadership, which is not to offer some idealised, heroic version of oneself as leader, but to offer one’s real self and to allow the other members of the ensemble to work with that. To do this, leaders must be transparent and unafraid. This ability to be unafraid and trusting is at the heart of what is involved in building a genuine ensemble.

Leaders in business are likely to find themselves carrying out both of these roles (the leader as theatre director or as orchestral conductor) at different times. The ‘leader as commander issuing orders’ is to be avoided.

Are we helping one another to perform brilliantly?

At the heart of all performance art is the interesting paradox that performers have large egos – shrinking violets do not clamour to get onto a stage in front of an audience and invite people to judge their performance – yet all performing artists understand that their own performance is completely dependent on the performance of their fellow artists. There are a few exceptions, obviously. The stand-up comedian lives or dies by himself or herself. The star soloist performs with a supporting band or orchestra with whom they have spent little time rehearsing, and it is the band’s or orchestra’s job to support the soloist in every twist and turn of their performance. But these examples do not represent true ensembles. In an ensemble, it is impossible to win on one’s own. We may get accolades for our individual contribution, but it is the performance as a whole that is judged. It is only possible to deliver a truly winning performance by encouraging and enabling wonderful performances from every other member of the ensemble. Their energy and brilliance then feeds into our own performance, driving us to perform better; the whole ensemble begins to come ‘on song’ with that indefinable but instantly recognisable crackle and spark. At that point, it is possible that we will be judged to have delivered a winning performance.

Cary Grant et al His Girl Friday
Crackle and Spark: Cary Grant , Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy in His Girl Friday

In the world of work, we are very bad at building genuine ensembles. The culture of individual success and individual reward undermines this. Good ensemble work is collaborative, or it is nothing. Individual egos and hierarchies must be subsumed to the greater good – the energy of large individual egos must be harnessed to deliver the crackling, sparking ensemble performance, rather than to allow one individual ego to grandstand and dominate proceedings at the expense of the coherence of the performance itself.

Are we delivering a winning performance?

Performing artists focus on ‘getting their performance across’ to their audience: on telling the story; on successfully transmitting the ideas and emotions inherent in the piece that they are performing and adding new nuances and meanings through their own performance.

Most business cultures think in terms of products rather than emotions. If we have made a product that people want to buy, we believe that we have succeeded. We focus on the ‘consumers’ of our products and think about what we have to do to keep that consumption coming. But, as consumers, our relationship with our chosen brands is more complex than that. We don’t ‘consume’ our favourite brands so much as ‘enjoy’ them – and our enjoyment comes from far more than the simple act of consumption. The very best corporations put on a great overall performance. Everything about our interaction with the corporation delights us – or it should. The moment that one aspect of the performance jars, or disappoints, the relationship is damaged. They have struck a false note. There are always ready examples. Car companies don’t seem so trustworthy when we discover they are prepared to use ‘defeat’ software to cheat tests designed to enforce democratically-agreed emission regulations. Multinational corporations don’t seem so loveable when we find they are doing everything in their power not to pay local taxes. A company that gives us the run around with an automated phone system designed to save them money at the expense of our time and patience is slipping down the performance league. It’s the whole performance that matters.

audience clapping lights
Delighting Our Audiences

Successful companies do not merely sell great products and services, they put on a winning performance – a great show. The front-of-house staff are friendly and enthusiastic; the seats are comfortable; the gin and tonics in the crush bar are perfect and the ice-cream is yummy. The show itself is brilliant, with great individual performances and fabulous ensemble work; the set is ingenious; the lighting is astonishing and sound system blows your socks off. You leave the theatre on a high and immediately start planning how soon you can go back again.

Now that is a show that will run and run. Developing business cultures that focus on delivering audience-wowing performances in the same way, creating crackling and sparking ensembles of top performers ‘putting on great show’, would keep our audiences coming back for more.

Read more about developing a performance culture and what business can learn from the arts in Teaching Leaders to Dance

Read more about the business novel Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success

We acknowledge the contribution of Piers Ibbotson, ex-Royal Shakespeare Company member and now Teaching Fellow at the UK’s Warwick University Business School. Piers is the author of The Illusion of Leadership and a contributor to Perform To Win.

Developing a Performance Culture

Dr Mark Powell, one of the co-authors of this article, is an unusual beast: a dancing management consultant. Mark has worked at partner level at several consultancies, including Accenture, KPMG and A.T. Kearney. He is also a world championship-winning Latin ballroom dancer, winning the WDC Open World Over-35 Latin Championship for two years running while he was a partner at KPMG.

In the course of his dance career, which began when he was studying Economics at Cambridge University, Mark came to realise that the techniques and mindsets that he used as a dancer to develop winning performances were very different from those that he tended to deploy in the world of business, but that those techniques and mindsets were entirely applicable to the workplace, and were potentially transformative.

Performing artists develop a set of approaches and behaviours that allow them to master their own craft and to work with their fellow artists to develop a true ‘ensemble’ or ‘partnership’ mentality, encouraging and helping each other to deliver brilliant individual performances that come together to create an outstanding final performance. The absence of these mindsets from most people’s working lives accounts for much of the growing sense of ‘disengagement’ that is blighting modern business.

If you have ever taken part in any kind of creative endeavour – if you have sung in a choir, played in a band or orchestra, performed in a play or musical, or done a stand-up routine, for example – then you may understand what we are driving at. When you ‘put on a show’ of any kind, you are fully engaged; your energy goes straight into your performance; there is no ‘organisational stuff’ that gets between your personal energy and the energy of your performance.

If businesses could tap into even a fraction of the energy, focus and mutually supportive mindset of performing artists, problems of disengagement in the workplace would disappear.

If companies had the same single-minded dedication to delivering a winning ‘performance’ that leaves their audiences calling out for more, their financial performance would be transformed.

This article sets out five core aspects of the mindsets and techniques adopted by top performing artists. These take the form of 5 questions. They are not the kinds of question that we usually ask ourselves when we approach our work, but they have the potential to transform our workplaces.

 5 lessons from the performing arts

  1. What play are we in and what is our role?

This sounds obvious, but it is fundamental. Every top performer starts out with this question. We have phrased it in terms of the theatre, but it applies to every performance art and it affects everything that the performers do. Classical musicians approach playing Handel differently to the way they approach Mahler. Jazz musicians approach Cool Jazz differently from the way they approach Bebop. Performing tragedy is different from performing farce. Great actors change everything about themselves – in subtle ways – when they inhabit a role. Think about Tom Hanks performing as Forrest Gump, and then as Commander Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 – everything about him is different.

The most successful companies know exactly what play they are in. Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, knew from the outset that the play he was in wasn’t called ‘Selling nice coffee’; his play was called ‘Creating a third place for people between work and home.’

Steve Jobs turned Apple from a struggling computer manufacturer into the world’s most valuable company when he helped the company understand that the play they were in wasn’t called ‘Making great computers’ but ‘Helping people think different’.

Understanding what exactly is our individual role in the performance is also key, as is the need to adapt our role in the course of the overall performance. Sometimes we have centre stage; sometimes our job is to feed another performer their line and give them centre stage. When a company (pun intended) knows exactly what show it is in and when everyone knows what their role is in relation to their fellow performers at any given time, that company is on the road to success.

  1. Where is our theatre of action?

Several kinds of operation are called a ‘theatre’: the place where the crucial action happens. The stage, the operating theatre, the theatre of war, for example. In all of these theatres, there is a clear recognition that the most important people are those closest to the action: the actors, technicians and stage-hands; the surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses; the soldiers, gunners and tank drivers. Everyone else, no matter how ‘senior’ they may be, is essentially in a supporting role to the people in the theatre. The managing director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has a very important role, which is all about enabling the people in the theatre to put on great performances.

This is a useful frame of mind for businesses to adopt: Where is our theatre of action? Where is the beating heart of what we do? Where is the vital interface between us and our customers – where do we get to meet the audience/patient/enemy/consumer?

The key to finding the right answer is to focus on the essential outcome, the bit that really matters. A well-disciplined and perfectly supplied army that cannot win battles is not a good army. A brilliantly-run theatre group that cannot put on an audience-pleasing show is not a successful theatre group. A piece of software that is not user-friendly is not a successful piece of software. A shop that is not a pleasure to spend money in is not a successful shop.

Once we have decided where the beating heart of our operation is, it becomes clear who is vital to a successful outcome and who, no matter how senior, is essentially in a supporting role. Amongst those who are vital to a successful outcome, what matters most is their esprit de corps. When the people at the interface are inhabiting their roles and delivering great performances, good things happen.

  1. Have we built a trusting, connected, partnership or ensemble?

This is at the very heart of performance. Top performers focus on their fellow players and ‘connect’, responding in the moment to a subtle reading of their fellow artists’ intentions. This is very obvious in dance, where we talk about the quality of two partners’ ‘connection’.

This kind of connection is sometimes described as ‘looking and seeing’. The theatre voice coach, Patsy Rodenburg, calls it ‘being in ‘The Second Circle’, as she sets out in this video. Looking and seeing demands effort, but it leads to highly functional relationships – and great performances.

A good connection also creates complete trust – at least in the context of the performance. In business, we tend to throw a group of people together and declare that they are now ‘a team’.  Building a real ensemble takes time, but if a group of people accept a challenge and are allowed to work their way to their own solution under the guidance of a ‘director’ – someone who is in charge but not in control – they will quite quickly begin to function like a real ensemble. Many managers still approach work in ‘command and control’ mode; we argued in an earlier article that much business thinking is still unthinkingly stuck in an ‘industrial’ mode. If leaders approached their work like a conductor approaches a choir, or in the way that a theatre director works with an ensemble, we would find it easier to forge ‘the connection’ and to build real ensembles of people, working together energetically and creatively to put on the best show they can.

  1. Are we rehearsing creatively?

Rehearsal is not the same as practice.

Practice is about running over something many times – one small element of a dance routine; a difficult musical phrase; the lines in a play – until it is committed to memory and can be performed without thinking. Our bodies take over and deliver the physical actions, which leaves our minds free to decide, in a live performance, exactly how we want to deliver that action or phrase; its weight, its timing; its accent. To discover the most impactful way of delivering that action or phrase in live performance, performers stop practising and start rehearsing.

In business, we practice many different routines until they are near-perfect, but we tend not to rehearse in any meaningful sense – which is why we complain about the lack of everyday innovation and creativity in our workplaces. Rehearsal is a process of collaborative co-creation. Everything is allowed; nothing is prohibited. One player offers something to the ensemble and it is taken up and played with, not criticized. Performers adopt a mindset of, ‘Yes, and…’ They accept what is offered, add something of their own, and offer it back, until a point is reached where everyone is happy, or it is accepted that this is a blind alley. Rehearsal accepts that all ideas are ‘half-baked’ when they are first proposed and that the job of rehearsal is to try to fully bake the ideas. In business, we tend to be resistant to ‘playing around’ with ideas. There is no spirit of ‘yes, and…’ Ideas that are not yet fully baked tend to be shot down in flames and dismissed.

The possibility of real rehearsal also presupposes the existence of a genuine ensemble: the group of people who are involved in rehearsal must leave their egos and their social or professional status outside the door of the rehearsal room. In business, ego and status normally get in the way. We hardly ever ‘rehearse’ – small groups of people decide what will happen and try to ‘implement’ this. It tends not to work very well.

  1. Do we know what inputs are creating our outputs?

All performers know that what the audience sees and hears is the result of precise, much-practised behaviours – inputs – that often have no direct or obvious connection to the perceived result: the output. Successful dance moves begin from the feet, or the spine, or a tilt of the head. The right musical tone is created by a precise combination of breath, lip and tongue, or of pressure and vibrato of finger and bow stroke. Performers focus on the inputs that they know will produce the right outputs.

In business, we tend to focus almost entirely on the ‘results’ – the things that can be easily measured – and we lose focus on the inputs that are producing those results. It is perfectly possible for any project or organization to have a near-perfect set of results for a succession of quarters, but still to have unresolved problems at its heart that doom it to eventual failure. The quality of the inputs matters far more to our long-term business health than the more obvious outputs.

Another way of seeing this is to recognise that intangibles are more important in business than the simplistic things that can be easily measured. The outputs that we can put numbers on all matter, but they are the result of other, far more important inputs, nearly all of which are effectively intangible: individual flair and flawless ensemble work; levels of trust, energy and commitment; creativity, inspiration and esprit de corps.

To be able to assess these intangibles, the modern leader needs to have his or her finger on the pulse of the organization; to assess its physical and emotional health. Today’s successful leader is (or should be) less like an engineer, monitoring various dials, throwing levers and adjusting valves, and more like a director, choreographer or conductor, able to spot the false note that renders a performance unbelievable; a subtle change that could transform the mundane into the marvellous; a new pace and rhythm for the overall performance that could deliver a wonderful experience to the audience.

Great directors do not carry clipboards and tick off the various measures that have been achieved. They know what play they are in and the make sure that everyone understands the roles they are playing. They know where their vital theatre of action is: the place where their performance is judged by the audience. They create working environments that engender trust and connection. They work at the inputs and forge true ensembles that are rehearsing creatively. They nudge the team in the desired direction with confidence that the final result (over which they can have no real control) will be a winning performance.

Read 5 more lessons from the performing arts in Developing a Performance Culture Part II

Read more about Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success, a business novel based on Mark’s ground-breaking arts-based leadership development programmes.

This blog first appeared on

An account of a four-year arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and run by Mark was given in a series of previous articles, beginning with ‘Changing Business Culture via the Performing Arts’.

The authors acknowledge the contribution of Piers Ibbotson, ex-Royal Shakespeare Company member and now Teaching Fellow at the UK’s Warwick University Business School. Piers is the author of The Illusion of Leadership and a contributor to the authors’ book Perform To Win (see below) on which this article is based.

Embodied Leadership: Conducting Business

Jazz Leadership

This post is the last in a series of five articles describing a major arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and run over a four-year period by Dr Mark Powell, one of the authors of this article. Previous posts have looked at the way in which delegates to the programme worked with dancers, actors and jazz musicians.

Read the previous article: ‘Jazz Leadership’

This final post explores the most ‘hands-on’– and for many delegates the most emotional – element of the programme: the experience of conducting a small chamber choir.

The conducting sessions at Oxford were facilitated by Peter Hanke, a pioneer in this field. Peter is an established choral and orchestral conductor and an associate of the Centre for Art and Leadership at Copenhagen Business School. Peter recounts how, many years ago, he was asked to join a group of business people and give them the opportunity to conduct a small choir. Peter, who gives masterclasses in conducting to professional musicians, was struck by the fact that some of these business leaders, with little or no musical background, were nevertheless able to conduct the musicians quite successfully – sometimes more successfully, to Peter’s surprise, than some trained musicians.

Non-verbal leadership

Peter argues that this is because conducting is not a metaphor for leadership, it is leadership – with the significant difference that it is entirely non-verbal leadership: in performance, the conductor can communicate only through body language and gesture. Successful business leaders have grasped some of the essentials of this vital aspect of communication (quite possibly unconsciously) and are able to use their skills to good musical effect.

A conductor should guide rather than command. Riccardo Muti

In the Oxford programme, delegates went through simple warm-up exercises – some basic ‘loosening up’ of arm movements and gesture – and then took turns in conducting the small professional choral group.

The mood is relaxed and non-judgmental; the facilitator reminds everyone that they are among friends and that the aim is to explore and experience, not to compete. The choir has been briefed to respond precisely to what the delegates do. If the conductor sets a laboured pace, the choir will doggedly stick with this until the facilitator rescues everyone. If the conductor is agitated, the choir will be agitated; as the conductor relaxes, the music calms. Intriguingly, it quickly becomes obvious that far more subtle things are also being conveyed: nervousness, excitement, ebullience, reticence and delight all produce their quite distinctive timbres. If the conductor is too controlling, the music sounds forced; if they get over-excited, the music falls apart and the choir grind to a halt, with much good-natured laughter.

Making music together

As the exercise progresses, the facilitator gives practical advice, all of which is remarkably effective in improving the conductors’ performance. Delegates might be advised to lean backwards, for example, to convey expansiveness, rather than leaning forwards, which suggests scrutiny. Delegates are often advised to limit their arm movements – more contained gestures are more effective than dramatic arm-waving. Where the arms are held in relation to the body has a surprisingly distinct effect on the sound the choir produces.

The sessions typically provoke a great deal of emotion. It is a rare privilege to be an active part of making beautiful music and the sound the choir produces, even in the hands of untrained conductors, is breath-taking, especially at such close quarters – delegates who are not conducting sit in amongst the choir.

The sessions provide rich material for subsequent reflection about leadership. Because space is limited, we have set out below some of the typical key discussion issues, in bullet point form.

  • Complex information is being transmitted from the conductor to the musicians, wordlessly. We tend to call this ‘emotional’ information, but the exercises demonstrate just how much information can be conveyed – both how subtle this can be, and how it shapes the whole performance.
  • The choir have skills that the leader lacks, yet the conductor is able to lead them successfully; the leader produces results through the skills and efforts of others.
  • The relationship is not one of control – the choir must be inspired, and it is impossible to command someone to be inspired.
  • The choir is capable of keeping time and performing the piece well without a conductor, it is what the conductor/leader brings to the music that is of interest.
  • The choir looks to the conductor/leader for direction; it wants to understand what the conductor wants, but it doesn’t want or need to be told what to do.
  • The music produced by the choir sounds different depending on the actions of the conductor because the choir are physically affected by what they see: their diaphragms, lungs, throats and vocal chords behave differently. When the singers like the effect that a conductor is producing, they tend to point to parts of their chests or throats: ‘That feels good here,’ they say. It is a remarkable demonstration of the real effects of what we call ‘embodied leadership’.
  • The success of the performance is judged by the beauty of the end result; good leadership produces more beautiful results.

Creating ‘beautiful’ performances and cultures

Seeing leaders as ‘people who conduct business’ is a highly useful tool for exploring business culture. Leaders and their organisations do perform together, but this performance is typically analysed only in terms of the usual metrics. We tend to forget the extent to which the relationship between leaders and their organizations is embodied – that any number of words are likely to be less effective than the perceived behaviour of leaders – and that there really is beauty in business performance, just as there is such a thing as a healthy (or ‘beautiful’) business culture.

The authors of these articles argue that there is much to be gained by thinking of business as a performance, undertaken by genuine ensembles focussed on the effectiveness of the performance as a whole, where leadership is embodied, shared and allowed and where the outcome is best judged by how beautiful, or ‘affective’, the performance is. Businesses have audiences – ‘consumers’ – and if we deliver great performances, they will come back for more.

A semi-fictionalised account of Dr Powell’s ground-breaking arts-based leadership programme is given in the business novel Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success, by Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

A full analysis of the dance aspect of the programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics under the title, ‘Dancing Lessons for Leaders: Experiencing the Artistic Mindset’.

This article first appeared on under the title ‘Conducting Business: Embodied Leadership and ‘Beautiful’ Cultures’

Teaching Leaders To Dance

By Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

In an earlier post, we gave a very brief account of a major arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s School of Business, designed to create new behaviors in a group of senior project managers in the oil and gas exploration industry. The aim was to create a new culture of ‘open-mindedness’: the ability to form more effective working relationships with the other stakeholders involved in major capital projects and an increased ability to ‘improvise’ – to react quickly and effectively to rapidly changing situations.

Dr Mark Powell designed and ran the four-year programme, giving successive delegates an intense, week-long exposure to artists of all kinds. Mark is himself a championship-winning Latin ballroom dancer, having won the over-35 World Championship for two years running while working as a partner at KPMG. He argues that people’s core behaviours are not easily changed by new information – by ‘being told stuff’ – and that we need a gut experience, a real ‘ah-ha!’ moment of understanding, to be able to internalise something sufficiently to create enduring new behaviour patterns. Working at close quarters with top-flight performing artists has the potential to create such moments of insight. This article describes how delegates to the Oxford progamme worked with world-class competitive Latin ballroom dancers.

The connection

Sessions begin with a short routine by the dancers. Dance that looks wonderful on stage or screen has even greater impact at close quarters; the speed, agility and precision of top dancers takes the breath away. The subsequent series of exercises and demonstrations set out to give delegates some understanding of the key mindsets and approaches that dancers use to create winning performances.

In competitive dance, there is much focus on the quality of ‘the connection’ between two dancers. It comes out of their intense awareness of each other’s behavior in the course of the performance and the subtlety of their interaction.

As an exercise, delegates are asked to pair up and put their hands forward, palms facing outwards. Each delegate puts their hands against the other’s, increasing the weight transferred until it is uncomfortable for the other partner. As they ease off, there comes a point at which each partner can no longer feel the other’s weight; they have lost ‘the connection’ in a physical sense. Moving around in simple ways while trying to maintain the correct weight of connection is difficult, but tends to lead to a number of ‘ah-ha!’ moments from delegates.

Dancers are not in physical contact throughout the whole of any routine; the connection must be maintained visually. Dancers talk about ‘looking and seeing’: keeping constantly and precisely aware of what their partner is experiencing and signalling.

Discussion turns to levels of genuine interaction in the workplace. Delegates experiment with maintaining higher levels of eye contact than usual while chatting to their colleagues. This is usually slightly uncomfortable, prompting further discussion of the typical level of ‘connection’ between colleagues at work.

Using ‘the connection’ for complex improvisation

The dancers perform a short, unrehearsed routine. Dancers with good connection are able to improvise astonishingly complex routines without any prior discussion. They explain to the delegates the convention in ballroom dancing that the man ‘leads’ and so is able to initiate moves that are instantly grasped and executed by their partner, but also stress that the lead is often ‘shared’ and that the woman dancer may initiate a move. This shared leadership between expert partners enables them to improvise high-quality routines that would require hours of rehearsal by less well-connected dancers.

The dancers also show how leadership must be ‘allowed’. The physical connection that was demonstrated in the weight-sharing exercise can become ‘push-pull’. They perform a short routine in which the man ignores his partner’s responses and ‘pushes’ her around the dance floor. The effect is immediately obvious and is ugly to watch; the dance has been ruined aesthetically.

Absolute trust

The key issue of trust is dramatically demonstrated when the dancers perform a few lifts and catches. The dancers explain that the trust is actually absolute, not relative: ‘a high degree of trust’ is not good enough – a moment’s doubt and hesitation can lead, paradoxically, to accidents. Discussion turns to typical levels of trust between colleagues at work and to the advantages that higher levels of trust would bring.

 The art in what we do

Finally, the dancers explore the issue of ‘artistry’ – the aesthetic elements that raise a competitive routine above mere technical excellence. Because competition is so fierce, last year’s winning artistry will not be enough to win this year’s championship: dancers are constantly looking for the new piece of magic that will lift their routine out of the ordinary – even when the ‘ordinary’ is technically astounding. Delegates consider whether there is scope for artistry in their own performances at work.

True ensemble behavior

The common thread that runs through all performances that involve more than one person is ensemble behaviour. Groups of performing artists put on a winning performance together, or they fail. Only by helping you to perform brilliantly can I hope to be part of a winning performance.

The focus on ‘connection’ in these dance sessions helped to engender, at an emotional, gut level, a new awareness of the centrality of partnership and team work, and the fact that this depends on ‘being there for others’: reacting positively and supportively to whatever partners are experiencing and signalling in the attempt to deliver a winning performance together. Issues of ‘shared and allowed’ leadership were also key, as was the consequent ability to improvise brilliantly in the face of rapidly changing circumstances.

Embracing a ‘dance’ culture

  • Quality of connection is key: great performers react to each other in the moment, subtly and precisely
  • Great connection also enables brilliant improvisation
  • Leadership is shared, allowed and serves the overall performance
  • Trust is absolute and taken for granted; lack of trust is fatal
  • Winning performances are aesthetically wonderful as well as being technically perfect

Read the next article in this series: ‘Turning Businesses Into Ensembles’

A semi-fictionalised account of Dr Powell’s ground-breaking arts-based leadership programme is given in the business novel Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success

A full analysis of the dance aspect of the programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics under the title, ‘Dancing Lessons for Leaders: Experiencing the Artistic Mindset’

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How Business Can Learn From The Performing Arts: A Case Study

In 2011, a major oil and gas exploration company based in the UK set out on an extraordinary, arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and led by Dr Mark Powell. The oil and gas company’s senior project managers are responsible for multi-million-dollar exploration projects around the world and the programme was designed, not to give these senior managers enhanced skillsets or new theoretical frameworks, but to change their behaviours and mindsets – to change their culture. More specifically, the aim was to create a new culture, the key element of which could be described as ‘open-mindedness’, in two distinct forms:

  1. A heightened sensitivity to changing circumstances and the ability to react to these quickly, creatively and positively;
  2. The ability to create highly functional teams on a relatively short timescale with groups of people from different backgrounds and with differing agendas.

The results, the company confirmed at the end of the four-year project, were ‘unexpected and wonderful’.

This article gives a very brief outline of the programme and its outcomes. A short series of later posts will explore individual arts-based sessions: dance, drama, jazz and choral conducting.

It’s not the technical issues that are the problem

Major capital projects in oil and gas exploration are notoriously prone to fail to meet target in terms of either budget or schedule – arguably the inevitable consequence of using complex technologies in often physically hostile, unpredictable environments. But the company’s research showed that projects’ failure to deliver on target was due more to ‘soft’ issues, involving the ability to get the various parties involved in projects – governments, project partners, contractors – to work successfully together as a team, than it was to ‘hard’ issues – the inevitable technical problems. As the most recent client director of the programme, Rachel (not her real name) said in an interview with the authors:

 ‘We can figure out the technical side, we can solve technical issues … you know, more cost and more time will solve most problems! And from that perspective we can fix those things – but it’s not those things that are going wrong, especially on big projects.’

Rachel’s predecessor as head of the development programme, Michael (not his real name) had said something very similar in a previous interview:

‘I could see that a lot of the issues we had with projects were in relation particularly to the way that project managers behaved, both in relationship to their staff and their stakeholders. And I guess the other thing was there was no real consistency of approach, I mean they would all be quite different so there was no real strong culture that this is the way that we do it.’

A key aspect of the change in mindset that Michael wanted his managers to achieve was the ability to be sensitive to different socio-cultural environments and to be able to improvise in the face of rapidly changing circumstances:

‘Their receptiveness to new things […] for a project is important because each time these people are going out to probably different cultures, different countries, different environments. So I think having that ability to respond to what’s coming at them rather than just trying to bulldoze through, and “Well, that’s how I do it, and that’s how I’m going to do it here” [is vital].’

Exploring the techniques and mindsets of performing artists

To address these and other issues, Mark Powell proposed a radical and innovative programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, giving delegates an intense, week-long exposure to artists of all kinds: actors, jazz musicians, dancers, singers, conductors, poets, storytellers and painters. Mark, an associate fellow of the business school, is a strategy consultant who has been a partner at both KPMG and A.T. Kearney, in addition to running several start-up businesses. Mark is also a World Championship-winning Latin ballroom dancer, having won more than 50 titles over the course of a dancing career that began when he was a student of economics at Cambridge University and continued through his career as a management consultant.

As Mark says,

‘I realized that the way of working together that my dance partner and I used to deliver championship-winning performances was different from the kind of relationship that I had with my business partners, or the kinds of relationship that I saw in the companies I was consulting for. I also realized that the way that we worked together as a dance partnership could be broken down and analysed. And the more I worked with other artists – actors, conductors, jazz musicians – the more I realized that we were all using very similar techniques and mindsets and that these could be communicated to other people and used very effectively in the world of business and even in everyday life.’

Changing behaviors with ‘aha!’ moments of gut understanding

Key to Mark’s coaching approach is the belief that offering people new ideas in the form of information – ‘telling people things’ – is very unlikely to change their behavior. But when they experience something at a gut, emotional level, this can bring about a real and permanent change to the way that they see things and the way that they behave.

‘When people work closely with really great performing artists – dancers, singers, conductors, jazz musicians, whatever – they experience something,’ says Mark. ‘It’s very moving, it’s very powerful, so it gets beneath people’s intellectual defences and then, typically, they really ‘get’ something. They really see how two dancers ‘connect’ – how they watch each other intently and pick up tiny bodily cues that allow them to move together, at speed, in an apparently magical way. Or they really ‘get’ how jazz musicians allow leadership to move around the group without any apparent signals, or how a choir and a conductor create a uniquely affecting performance of a piece of music, based only on the choir’s instinctive interpretation of the conductor’s body language. And when that wonderful ‘aha!’ moment happens, it never leaves you. So these people go back to their world with a different view of how you can work creatively with someone; how you can develop this real ‘ensemble’ approach of “We’re going to work together to make this a winning performance, and I have to help you to be brilliant to enable me to be brilliant.”’

The programme had not been easy to ‘sell’ to senior figures in the corporation. As programme director, Michael, told the authors:

‘I guess the sort of standard project management course would have been, you know, do the cost estimating and schedule risk management. And there was an awful lot of pressure from certain parts of the company to do that, that this should be just a skills training programme.’

But as Rachel confirmed:

‘I think there is an intuitive understanding at a lot of senior levels that in order to get extraordinary results you need to do something extraordinary, and getting people outside of their comfort zones and getting people to try something that is extraordinarily unusual for them is where we got the best realizations from those people about their own environment, their own behavior, their own transactions and relations with others.’

Ten behavioural lessons from the performing arts

The ‘take-outs’ from this kind of intense and varied programme of arts-related coaching are highly varied and differ between the forms of performing arts involved and from individual to individual. The main take-outs from the programme can be summarised in the form of 10 questions.

  • What performance are we in and what is our role?
  • Where is our theatre of action?
  • Have we built a trusting, connected, partnership or ensemble?
  • Are we rehearsing creatively?
  • Do we have the right people in the room?
  • Do we know what inputs are creating our outputs?
  • Where is the art in what we do?
  • Is our leadership shared, allowed and inspirational?
  • Are we helping each other to perform brilliantly?
  • Are we delivering a winning performance?

The programme director, Michael, confirmed that delegates had indeed acquired a greater self-awareness of their own leadership style and behavior:

‘A lot of them work very hard, there’s a lot of energy, and they don’t necessarily ever step back and look at their impact and how they appear to others. Whereas in a lot of these sessions it did make them reflect on it and think well, that’s how I behave and that’s how I come across. So there was quite a lot of that in the sessions, people were forced to just reflect and think and experience in a different way. And it did have an impact on some of them. Particularly the more difficult characters […] Probably the two most disruptive in the whole population did, in the end, turn out to be those two that were most supportive of the whole thing.’

A very real financial “oomph”

A culture of increased ‘open-mindedness’ did develop amongst the project managers who had attended the programme, leading to greatly improved relationships with their complex teams of stakeholders, and several individual initiatives in problem-solving that saved the company considerable amounts of time and money.

To give Rachel the last word on the arts-based programme’s effect on delegates:

‘It was completely unexpected and far greater than we had anticipated […] A lot of the perception before that was that the benefits [would be] more intangible; that the benefits were more soft and fuzzy and fluffy […] and what we found when we actually got this back is that’s not actually the case at all and that the results that were coming back were much more concrete and much more distinct than we expected – there was a very real financial oomph.

Read more about what business can learn from the arts in a series of four additional posts, beginning with Developing a Performance Culture.

A semi-fictionalised account of Dr Powell’s ground-breaking arts-based leadership programme is given in the business novel Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success.

A full account of the dance-related Dr Powell’s ground-breaking programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics.