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

Take Off Those Ego-Tinted Spectacles

Artist: Unknown

As we all know, youth is a quest for identity and belonging. When I was at school I had a strong sense of my own identity, but wasn’t too sure where I belonged.

There were the Sports Boys who talked press-ups and poly-gym, fixtures and fights. They were jokers and gamblers, and full of derring-do. There were the Cool Kids who conversed about mousse, gel and Jam lyrics. They wore Never Mind the Bollocks badges on their blazer lapels and had their ears pierced at Debenhams in Romford. And then there were the Swots. Socially awkward, clinically shy, they debated the Napoleonic Wars, Virginia Woolf and wildlife documentaries. They were quietly competitive around arcane knowledge and academic grades.

I guess most of my peers would have put me down as one of the Swots, though I have had a lifelong aversion to David Attenborough’s oeuvre. Nonetheless I liked to move discreetly between the various groups. And I achieved this by offering free Latin translations every morning on the low wall by the Tuck Shop.

For the most part each student group inhabited their own self-contained world. There was very little interaction between the clusters. But occasionally they would look up and make cutting observations on outsiders. It was a way of reinforcing belonging. I was struck by the fact that the Sports Boys thought all the other boys were spineless, weedy wimps. The Cool Kids laughed at the other kids’ sartorial blunders, their poor haircuts and oafish musical choices. The Swots just thought everyone else was stupid.

Fundamentally all my young friends saw the world through the prism of their own particular tastes and competencies. They wore Ego-Tinted Spectacles.

It was only after I had been in the work environment for some time that I realised we were still wearing our Ego-Tinted Spectacles. Our world order and sense of priority were primarily determined by our own qualities, strengths and achievements.

This phenomenon could sometimes extend to company leaders who set objectives in line with their personal goals; surrounded themselves with people with a similar set of skills; and appointed like-minded acolytes to senior positions. The trouble is that a tendency to monoculture can make a business inflexible, impermanent and vulnerable to external threat. And of course the curse of great leaders is often to anoint successors who are merely pale imitations of themselves. (Consider Alex Ferguson…)

I’m a firm believer that leaders demonstrate an ability to magnify their own particular strengths. Leadership for me is The Amplified Self. But the very best leaders must also have an equally strong sense of their own shortcomings. They address those shortcomings by co-opting colleagues whose virtues are equal and opposite. They recognise and reward the very qualities they lack themselves. And they understand that long-term business success is achieved through diversity of working method, culture and style.

So, if you want to get on, if you fancy yourself as a leader, try seeing the world from other people’s perspectives. Take off those Ego-Tinted Spectacles. And ‘put yourself in my place.’

‘Put yourself in my place,
If only for a day.
See if you can stand
The awful hurt I feel inside.’

Put Yourself in My Place/The Elgins/ Holland-Dozier-Holland

No. 67

Leadership and the Amplified Self

         Alexander Rodchenko photomontage, 1924

         Alexander Rodchenko photomontage, 1924

In the twilight of my Agency career I was asked to articulate my personal understanding of leadership. When I applied myself to the task I realized that, although I’d worked with many compelling CEOs, ECDs, Directors and so forth - and I had myself held some positions of responsibility - I didn’t really have a theory of leadership.

I determined to consider the characteristics of the leaders I’d worked with that I most admired. Surely if I gave due thought to their particular skills and personalities, some consistent themes and patterns would emerge.

First there was the Visionary. He was ardent, emotional and instinctive. He could see the future, and colleagues wanted to join him there. Then there was the Competitor. He was pugnacious, robust and strong. He created a culture of constant improvement and success. Then there was the Motivator, who made all her teams feel special and want to belong. Then there was the Puppet Master, who avoided the spotlight, and elegantly managed her critical relationships behind the scenes. There was the Problem Solver, who had an indifference to rhetoric and a passion for practicality. And finally the Philosopher King. He simply thought more profoundly about Clients, markets and brands than anyone else.

As I pondered my models of great leadership, I was quite struck by the fact that they had so little in common with one another. I considered creating a compendium of leadership skills: Vision, Competitiveness, Motivation, Relationship Management, Practicality and Wisdom. I could perhaps suggest that any aspirant leader exhibits all of these qualities.

But then I realized that none of my real life leaders had all of these skills. None was in any way a perfect paradigm. Indeed each of them was flawed, often in very engaging ways.

As I considered this conundrum, I understood that there was one thing that all my model leaders had in common. Their leadership style was consistently an extension of their own strong, distinctive personalities. The Visionary was indeed a passionate person; the Competitor was a sportsman to the core; the Puppet Master just couldn’t help but be charming. And so forth.

These leaders were authentic. But, critically, they were also larger than life. Their very real virtues had found a louder voice, a larger stage. They were hyperboles of themselves if you like.

This analysis has led me to some relatively straightforward advice for the aspirant leader. Don’t seek to be someone else, or indeed everyone else. As Oscar Wilde observed: ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’

Rather, you need to establish what you’re good at, and do it in a bigger, bolder way. Because leadership, in my opinion, is The Amplified Self.

And yet this is easier said than done. ‘Know thyself’ was inscribed above the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It was a resonant maxim precisely because self-knowledge is so difficult to attain.

So some soul searching is in order. And you may find it worth enlisting the help of your dearest friends and closest colleagues. What are you like at your best? What sets you apart? What makes you you? Look in the mirror. Isolate your truest strengths. And turn those strengths up to eleven.

If you think you have the charisma, stamina, vision and appetite to lead, don’t spend your time reading the textbooks, mimicking your predecessor, emulating your hero. Don’t be someone else’s shadow, their pale imitation. Don’t try to be someone you’re not.

If you want to be a leader, be your own Amplified Self.

A version of this piece was first published in: BBH LABS 28 /07/2014

No. 26