People in leadership positions sometimes feel like they are ringmasters in a circus. Many things are happening at the same time. Some of the animals are dangerous or, at best, unpredictable. The star performers need to have their egos stroked. The clown car breaks down. Everyone needs to work together to put on the show. And, ultimately, the goal is to keep the customers happy and coming back for more, because there is an underlying business model to support the effort.
Circus Harmony is a program at the City Museum, in St. Louis, Missouri, that teaches “circus skills.” Circus Harmony’s motto is “Peace Through Pyramids/Harmony Through Handsprings,” and students as young as five years old learn about tumbling, acrobatics, juggling, and contortion, and clowning. (And you’re never too old to learn these skills. A current student who is learning about the trapeze is 86.)
I learned about Circus Harmony for the first time a few weeks ago, when I visited the City Museum. I didn’t know what to expect when a docent said that a circus performance was scheduled at noon – but I knew I had to find out. (I was having difficulty imaging elephants on the third floor of a renovated factory building.) The performances from Circus Harmony were by young people, ranging from about 8 to 18 years old, who are learning to be tumblers, gymnasts, contortionists, aerialists, and jugglers — and sometimes utilizing several of these skills at the same time.
I was particularly impressed by the poise these young people displayed in the face of things going wrong. When a group of gymnasts took several attempts to get a pose right, they just kept trying until they succeeded; they focused on the task at hand, apparently oblivious to the hundred pairs of eyes watching them. When the young woman twirling a dozen hula hoops dropped one and it rolled out the door and into the lobby, she chased it down, came back, and picked up the routine where she had left off. And when a young man was balancing on top of a 4-foot-diameter ball, preparing to jump rope, and the rope handle broke, the ringmaster stopped one of the other performers from fetching a new one. She handed the broken rope back to the performer. He cinched his grip up a few inches higher on the rope and proceeded to jump with the broken rope while he was balancing on the ball.
I thought these recoveries were spectacular. I commented on this aspect of the performance to the ringmaster as my husband and I left, and she noted that this is an important part of what Circus Harmony teaches. “Sometimes,” she said, “the jump rope breaks. You have to learn to deal with it.”
I think this is a great metaphor for dealing with problems in general – and the challenges of leadership, in particular. Here is what Circus Harmony says about how “circus teaches the art of life”:
While our students are learning to flip, fly and juggle, they are also learning important life skills like focus, persistence and teamwork. Bu turning you upside down we teach you to stand on your own two feet. By dropping objects we teach you to catch them. By having you walk all over someone we teach you to take care of them. By having you clown around we teach you to take yourself seriously.
I’m going to take a lesson from these young performers the next time I encounter an unexpected obstacle or challenge. Sometimes, the jump rope breaks.