The Uncertain Leader: Crystal Pite and the ‘Doldrums of Doubt’

Isabella Gasparini, Solomon Golding, Joseph Sissons, Kristen McNally and Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød in Crystal Pite’s  Flight Pattern . © Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House

Isabella Gasparini, Solomon Golding, Joseph Sissons, Kristen McNally and Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød in Crystal Pite’s Flight Pattern. © Dave Morgan, courtesy the Royal Opera House

Crystal Pite creates dance for the modern world. She has choreographed touching and thought provoking pieces that respond to personal trauma, grief and addiction; to the science of swarm intelligence; to the tragedy of the refugee crisis. She deals in organic structures and fluid shapes; complex patterns and restless waves. She explores the forces, conflicts and tensions at play in our bodies, our relationships and the world beyond.

‘It’s just human beings striving and yearning and reaching and trying. That is what moves me when I watch people dance.’

In person Pite seems a quiet presence, gentle and softly spoken. She is very articulate, but also cautious and considered.

‘I don’t feel that speaking is my first language. Dance is my first language.’

In a recent BBC documentary (Behind the Scenes, Radio 4, 25 July 2017) Pite is interviewed in the midst of rehearsals for ‘Flight Pattern,’ her first collaboration with the Royal Ballet. She openly expresses her anxieties about the piece.

‘I can feel that I’m overwhelmed by this project right now. It’s ambitious and there’s very little time, and I’m not convinced about some of the choices that I’ve made, and I don’t know if things are going to work. And if they don’t work, I don’t think I’m going to have time to come up with a Plan B.’

Pite reassures herself that persistence, effort, action and creation will see her through what she calls ‘the doldrums of doubt.’

Crystal Pite portrait courtesy of Sadlers Wells

Crystal Pite portrait courtesy of Sadlers Wells

‘Keep pushing through, just keep making. Keep making, keep imagining, keep building, keep trying. Otherwise I’ll just freeze.’

Pite’s candour about her misgivings is rare and compelling in someone so successful. And yet her uncertainty comes in harness with a steely determination, and a clear conviction about her core idea and end objective.

‘I have such a clear plan for the eye of the audience…Not only do I choreograph what’s on stage. I also choreograph the viewer. I choreograph what I think they’re going to be looking at.’

Pite is the very model of a modern creative leader. She has complete confidence about where she wants to go. But she is also open about the doubts and uncertainties, opportunities and threats that present themselves along the way.

‘I have to be a leader and I have to be a creator. Being a leader requires that I know what I’m doing. I need to walk in here, into the studio, and know; and to be able to be clear and decisive and sure. And being a creator is really the opposite of that. I need to be in a state of not knowing. I need to remain open to possibilities and to allow myself to meander and to play.’

It struck me that Pite’s remarks do not pertain just to creative leadership; but to all forms of leadership in an age of change. In the past we wanted our leaders to be consistently certain, steadfast and strong. But in times of transformation complete conviction about the future can come across as arrogant, misguided or delusional. When all around us is in flux, absolute certainty is absolutely impossible.

Of course, we need our leaders to be sure about the objectives we’re pursuing; the direction we’re headed. But we also need them to be more honest about their doubts and fears; more open to alternatives and opportunities; more responsive to events and circumstances.

‘Flight Pattern’ turned out to be an exceptional piece of modern dance. It was at once beautiful and sad; heartbreaking and inspiring. Its success must in part derive from its choreographer’s willingness to embrace her apprehensions and anxieties. Uncertain times call for uncertain leaders.

No. 143

Leadership: Are You a Gardener or a Mechanic?

Edward Watson and Mariela Nunez in Infra by Wayne McGregor

Edward Watson and Mariela Nunez in Infra by Wayne McGregor

I recently attended a talk given by the British choreographer, Wayne McGregor, and the Finnish composer and conductor, Esa-Pekka Salonen. They’re currently working together on McGregor’s new ballet, Obsidian Tear (Royal Opera House, 28 May- 11 June).

McGregor’s style is angular and sharp; sinuous and curved; fast and physical. Though he has a clear personal vision of what he wants to achieve, he is also a collaborator. He partners variously with musicians, artists and writers; economists, anthropologists and neuroscientists; with anyone in fact that inspires his curiosity. He is also a theorist for whom dance is ‘physical thinking.’ He is as elegant and precise with words as he is with choreography.

‘I’m really passionate about creativity... I believe it can be taught and shared. And I think you can find things out about your own personal physical signature, your own cognitive habits, and use that as a point of departure to misbehave beautifully.’

Wayne McGregor, TEDGlobal 2012

McGregor suggests that ‘choreography is 80% psychology and 20% artistry.’ He likes to operate with and against the tensions that naturally exist between different dancers; to ‘notice and subvert hierarchy.’

‘It is as much about watching and noticing as it is about giving.’

Salonen seems of a similar mentality. In describing his approach to composition he says, ‘I’m more a gardener than a mechanic.’ He doesn’t simply arrange notes on a stave. A piece takes time and reflection. It is worked and reworked, accommodating new meditations and moods along the way.

I was quite struck by the picture of contemporary creative craft that McGregor and Salonen were painting. I liked the impression they gave of psychologically astute creative collaboration and sharing. And the notion of the leader as gardener rather than mechanic is a compelling one.

I think that many businesses today are run by Mechanic Leaders. They treat talent as an anonymous function, an asset, a cost; a resource to be maximised, an investment to be realised, a headcount to be reduced. They see companies as hierarchies, matrixes and ‘org’ charts; as circuit diagrams that are clean, logical and fixed; as ‘international business machines.’

Perhaps because of this perspective Mechanic Leaders have a strong sense of their own power and control, a sense of self worth that justifies to them their handsome remuneration packages.

In the classical music world Esa-Pekka Salonen has spoken out against the tradition of the egotistical, rock star conductor:

‘I hated the image of the omnipotent, God-like fucker who flies his private jet around the world and dates supermodels and so on.’

Esa-Pekka Salonen, FT, 5 December 2014

I’m sure we all recognise this personality type in the business community too.

For the Gardener Leader the talent within an organisation represents infinite potential and limitless possibility. It needs nurturing, encouragement, care and attention. The Gardener Leader is observant of strengths and weaknesses; sensitive to tensions and relationships; eager to experiment and explore. For them leadership is a dialogue rather than a monologue; a partnership rather than an act of authority. Consequently they are less autocratic and arrogant. For the Gardener Leader companies are organic cultures: interdependent, endlessly evolving communities.

Surely in the digital age we need our leaders to be more gardeners than mechanics. Surely we need leaders who can plant and nurture; tend and grow. Modern leadership is not about power; it’s about empowerment. It’s not about controlling; it’s about cultivating.

Surely the Head Gardener reaps the best harvest.

No. 81