Leadership Lessons from a Three Ring Circus

Posted 10.25.2010

Circus1 With everything that leaders have to juggle, it's easy to feel like the ringmaster of a three ring circus.  For Kenneth Feld, CEO of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, it must be hard to resist that feeling.  In it's almost always interesting Corner Office series, the New York Times ran an interview with Feld on what he's learned from leading the Greatest Show on Earth.

The interview itself is worth five minutes of your time.  In the meantime, here are some of the leadership lessons Feld has learned that stuck with me:

Know Yourself:  Feld learned the circus by traveling around the world with his father searching for acts.  His father was a legend in the business and spent three hours every night going over with Kenneth what they had done that day.  With such vivid experiences and strong mentoring, Feld was inclined, when he took over the company after his father's death, to ask himself, "What would Dad do?"  He eventually learned to think for himself and trust his own experience.  He learned what he was good at, leveraged those strengths and filled in the gaps with strong managers who complemented his strengths.

Create Opportunities for Teammates to Respect Each Other:  If you've been to the circus, you know that the performers come from all over the world.  Before each touring season, the international cast gathers in Florida to put the show together.  The highlight for the cast is Act Night in which they all perform for each other.  Of course, some of the acts are literally death defying.  All of them require unique talents.  Feld notes that through Act Night the cast forms bonds of mutual respect that carry them through the tour.  It's interesting to consider what sort of Act Night you might stage to build the bonds of respect and trust within your team.

Look for Independent Thinkers:  On the business side of the house, Feld's favorite question to ask is "How have you made money?"  He's looking for the creative and entrepreneurial spark with this question.  What he really wants to hear is a story from the childhood of the person he's interviewing about a lemonade stand they ran or something like that.  (In my case, it was selling Christmas cards door to door when I was 8 or 9.  A different era back then.)  Again, it's interesting to consider what kinds of questions you can have in your tool kit to uncover the creative spark in someone's thinking.

After you've had a chance to look at the interview, I'd love to hear what your takeaways were.