Why Doesn’t the Spinning Ballerina Get Dizzy?... A Leadership Lesson from the World of Dance


Tamara Rojo as Odile

Tamara Rojo as Odile

In Act III of Swan Lake, Odile, the Black Swan, dances thirty-two consecutive fouette turns en pointe. It’s an extraordinary thing to behold. Like an elegant spinning top, a human gyroscope. Your jaw drops. Surely the ballerina must get progressively dizzy. Why doesn’t she fall over and collapse to the ground in a heap of black tulle?

Of course, there is a technique.

From an early age a ballet dancer learns to ‘spot’: whilst rotating her body at a constant speed, she fixes her gaze on some distant point in the theatre or rehearsal room, and then whips her head round to refocus on the same point again. Spotting diminishes the amount that the head is spinning and so in turn diminishes the risk of dizziness.

Perhaps there’s something that business can learn here.

As the commercial world spins faster, one way or another we’re all engaged in change, whether managing it or making it happen. Sometimes it can be quite dizzying.

The rhetoric increases in volume. We’re on a burning platform. We’re going to re-invent, re-engineer, re-model. We need to be faster, more flexible, more agile. We’re seeking transformational change. We have change managers, change programmes, change champions. The only constant is change. It’s going to be 78 revolutions per minute.

In my own time in advertising I found that change could be inspiring, exciting, exhilarating. But the pressure for constant change could also be bewildering, destabilising and confusing for the broader staff base. As you launched another vision, introduced another expertise, proposed another process, your colleagues sometimes stared back at you with blank looks and empty smiles. What, you wondered, were they really thinking? 

We learned periodically to remind people that in the midst of change the objective remained the same: fundamentally we’re in the business of producing great ideas that shape beliefs, behaviours and culture; it’s the same as it’s always been; it’s all about the work.

Companies can suffer change fatigue. Too many empty promises, unrealistic projections, apocalyptic predictions; too many buzz phrases and brave new worlds; a revolving door of senior managers and singular ideas.

When all around is changing, we all yearn for a North Star to guide us, an anchor to secure us. Like a ballerina pirouetting on stage, when we’re in a spin, we need a fixed point to steady us.

What can that fixed point be?

It can be the reassuring consistency of a leadership team. It can be a reminder of unchanging cultural truths. It can be the clear statement of Vision, Mission and Values. It can be a well-articulated Purpose.

Whatever it is, it’s worth repeating. Over and over again.

In recent years scientists have suggested that there’s more to the ballet dancer’s stability than spotting; that in fact a ballerina’s brain learns over time to suppress signals from the balance organs in the inner ear which would otherwise make them fall over.

Perhaps a business too can, with repetition, internalise a sense of security in the midst of accelerating change; learn to sustain perfect poise and balance at the heart of the revolution. Just like a ballerina.

‘You know I saw the writing on the wall
When you came up to me.
Child, you were heading for a fall.
But if it gets to you,
And you feel like you just can't go on,
All you gotta do
Is ring a bell,
Step right up, and step right up,
And step right up.
Just like a ballerina,
Stepping lightly.’

Van Morrison/Ballerina


No. 73

Whose Ad Is It Anyway?

     Tamara Rojo  Courtesy of Charlotte Macmillan

     Tamara Rojo Courtesy of Charlotte Macmillan

Last week I attended a talk by the magnificent Royal Ballet dancer, Tamara Rojo.

As a child growing up in Madrid she had not been aware of ballet and had stumbled into her first dance academy somewhat by chance. She immediately fell in love with the art form and became a diligent pupil. Observing her enthusiasm for dance, her parents took her to a performance of Swan Lake by a visiting Russian company.

The young Tamara was, however, disappointed and upset by the experience. She loved ballet, but had never imagined that it was to be crafted into stories and performed in front of other people. She thought ballet was, as she had experienced it in class, an entirely personal thing, a beautiful private escape.

Subsequently Tamara’s teachers would tell her that she was there to entertain the audiences, not herself.  But one could not help concluding that Tamara’s exceptional ability to inspire others was derived in part from her determination to do something for herself.

Inevitably when we discuss modern communication, we spend most of our time considering whether we are properly reflecting the truth of the brand or engaging the interest and participation of the audience. And rightly so.  But doesn’t it help, a little at least, to be motivated by our own interest, enthusiasm and sense of pride?

Many years ago I worked with the much loved and respected creative, Martin Galton. We would return, heads bowed, from another attritional Client meeting to supply the team with the customary ‘builds’. Martin, however, would only entertain a certain level of distortion of his original concept. Beyond that point he’d say: ‘Forget it. Throw that idea away and I’ll do you another one.’

Frustrating at the time, but his self-belief endured. In an era where the communications process is increasingly driven by the end user and hyper-targeting techniques, how many of us stubbornly hold on to our own vision? Is there still a time and a place to ‘dance for ourselves’?

First published: BBH Labs 16/05/11

No. 7