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

Me. We


In 1975 Muhammad Ali was invited to talk to a group of Harvard students. Someone in the crowd shouted, 'Give us a poem, Muhammad'. He paused for a moment, looked up and said: 'Me. We'. This couplet competes for the title of the shortest poem ever written in the English language (with 'Fleas. Adam had 'em' and 'I - Why?').

I particularly like Ali's poem because it suggests two fundamental questions: Who am I? Who are we? Sometimes I suspect that these may be the two most important questions of all.

Inevitably one's career is a voyage of self discovery. What are my strengths and weaknesses, my values, my tastes and beliefs? How do I perform, with encouragement and under stress, on my own and in a team? 

But 'who am I?' may be the easier of the two questions to answer. We're nowadays all taught self awareness, self realisation, self expression. We've got 360 degree, two-way appraisals. We've got mindfulness and feedback sandwiches. We live in the Age of Me.

How often do we properly consider 'we'?

In the past 'we' was defined by notions of class, race, region and religion. But it's obviously more complex now. My own answer to 'who are we?' has changed with time and perspective.

We were the swotty kids, the musos. We were Essex and the NME. We were Catholic guilt and post modern irony. We were  suburban soul boys, Prosecco socialists. We were second hand clothes and third XI football. We were pubs with carpet, pies with mash, dancing with feet. We were London. We were the arts people, The Guardian, we were Radio 4.

And similarly my professional 'we' has evolved too. We were John, John and Nigel's team. We were restless spirited and serious minded. We were brand centric, forward facing, creative. We were Bass Weejuns, 501s, MA1. We were Soho, black and steel, MTV in Reception. We were broad and shallow planning. We were work that was funny, clever, beautiful. We were Gwyn & Jim. We were a singing Agency, an Agency that cared. We hung on, we rolled with the punches. We were positive, optimistic, collegiate. We laughed.

On reflection it seems that the happiest times for me were when I had an intense sense of 'we' ; when I felt part of a strong culture with a serious purpose. Peter Drucker reputedly said 'culture eats strategy for breakfast'. I'm sure he was right. Indeed for me culture is strategy.

Perhaps it is a question you should try asking  yourself. Not just 'who am I?', but 'who are we?' Who are my group, gang, team or cohort? Who are my generation? What do we believe in ? What defines us? As an Agency, as a discipline, as a team? What makes us different from previous generations, from everyone else? How will we make an impact? What will our legacy be?

I suspect it may be harder to cultivate 'we' in the modern era, in an age of individuality and empowerment, when our careers are flexible, our loyalties fluid. However, I think there is a point at which the individual and collective intersect. Increasingly any business's commercial and social success will be determined by its ability to realise the full potential of the individuals within it. Realising human capital, creating sustainability in human terms, these are the present priorities. Traditional top-down leadership styles are obviously less suited to this networked age. Modern businesses need to inspire a broad based, integrated culture of diverse leadership styles. Because a leadership culture creates a leadership brand.

Or as Ali would have put it, a little more succinctly, 'Me. We.'

First published in Campaign 02/04/2015

No. 33