Cirque du Soleil: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: May 11th, 2011 by bobmorris

Cirque du Soleil: The Spark – Igniting the Creative Fire that Lives within Us All
Created by Lyn Heward and written by John U. Bacon
Doubleday (2006)

“From a tiny spark a great fire was kindled and its flames warmed the world.”

Cirque du Soleil is one of the 32 organizations that William C. Taylor and Polly LaBarre examine in their book, Mavericks at Work: Why the Most Original Minds in Business Win. The strategies, practices, and leadership styles of these organizations may in some respects seem “unconventional, eccentric, odd, etc.” However, they help to explain how organizations (as diverse as Anthropologie, Cirque du Soleil, Commerce Bank, DPR Corporation, GSD&M, IBM’s Extreme Blue, ING Direct, the Pixar Animation Studio, and Southwest Airlines) have achieved extraordinary success in the “hypercompetitive marketplace” to which the authors refer.

However, and this is a key point, Taylor and LaBarre correctly note that there’s a significant difference “between learning from someone else’s ideas and applying them effectively somewhere else.” Presumably Cirque du Soleil’s founder, Guy Liberté, and his associates rigorously examined dozens of other organizations while formulating and later refining their own strategies, practices, and leadership styles. In fact, that process never ends in “maverick” organizations such as Cirque du Soleil as their leaders continue to learn much of great value, especially what would not work and/or would not be appropriate for their organization.

Cirque du Soleil: The Spark —  Igniting the Creative Fire That Lives Within Us All is an entertaining as well as an informative explanation of Cirque du Soleil’s “magic,” with the material for the book created by its former president and COO of the company’s Creative Content Division, Lyn Heward, and written by John U. Bacon.  The performances are the result if a multiple of processes that include talent recruitment, auditions, orientation, intensive training, collaboration, auditions for a specific assignment, rehearsals (if selected), and continuous improvement during performances. As I read the book, I was reminded of the research conducted by Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University to understand what produces peak performance. Natural talent is important but the critical factor is a total commitment to (on average) 10,000 hours of highly-disciplined, sharply-focused practice under strict and expert supervision. My guess is that all of Cirque du Soleil’s peak performers meet (if not exceed) that commitment.

This book is about both art and science. It is also about passion that elevates and a drive for perfection that is relentless. (My impression is that perfection is the norm to which all involved are held accountable.) Not everyone who reads this book will have the creative fire within them ignited. Many of them will not want to. However, there is something of substantial value for every reader to learn about the freedom that can only be achieved through order and structure, about the joy that can only be experienced after many painful personal sacrifices. Even within the expansive and ingenious infrastructure on stage that each Cirque du Soleil performance requires, there are limits to how high its artists can ascend but there are no limits to how high and how far the human spirit can…unless those limits are self-imposed.

 


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