Cirque du Soleil and Power of Creative Courage

Cirque du Soleil was founded in 1984, focusing on human acrobatic performances beyond imagination in a high energy atmosphere filled with music, lights, and high tech visual mediums that tell a story. It is a human circus that leaves audiences smiling, energized, and feeling like they are departing a dream. Creative Courage is responsible for the development and success of Cirque.

Creativity is often defined as leveraging original and new ideas to “produce something artful, skillful or masterful that questions, persuades, or moves.” Courage is “deciding to move forward toward the unknown, the uncertain or certain, despite being afraid.” Welby Altidor, author of Creative Courage and former Executive Creative Director of Cirque, credits his development of creative courage to manage his fear of failure in developing this masterpiece of creative entertainment. But how do you develop creative courage?

It starts with Care. Care is listening to the ideas of your team, recognizing what Welby calls their superpowers or personality strength, and understanding each individual’s genius or unique skill(s) they possess. Next is creating a safe environment, one where people can share ideas freely, making mistakes but having them treated as teachable moments for all. Other needed components includes fostering trust, ability to recognize danger and work with it, the ability to dream of what could be possible, discover breakthroughs or unique unexpected solutions to problems, and personal and organizational growth because it has much greater value than winning.

In 1992, Boris Verkhovsky was Cirque de Soleil’s director of the acrobatic and coaching team. At that time trampolines were used in different ways, now Cirque was looking at how use them in a more creative way. A rule had always been not to use them next to a wall for safety reasons. Boris understood the underlying reasons but decided to have his athletic acrobats experiment with it. All the performers shied away from trying new tricks due to the “understood” safety risks. Finally, one performer used it in a way that he looked like he was walking up the wall. Boris then noticed the wonder in the faces of all the observers of this feat, they were in awe! Still, none of the performers could make it to the top of the wall.

Boris believed they could do it, but the fear of past beliefs it was too risky was imbedded in each performer. Boris then put a bottle on top of the wall with a large safety net at the base of the wall, challenging them to see which performer could “walk” up the wall and retrieve the bottle. It became a game for all. The next day the first performer achieved it and by the end of the week, all the performers were taking a wall walk and retrieving the bottle. Boris knew the performers strengths (care), he had ensured performers safety was taken care of, and all the other components of creative courage were satisfied. The established belief it was unsafe and undoable, the paradigm, was changed.

Welby will be talking about how to gain creative courage at the Rosza Center on Tuesday at 7:30, an event free to the public. Creative courage is associated with design thinking, a strategic way to problem solve developed out of Stanford’s D-school. If more of us developed creative courage many of the problems in the world today would cease to exist. Pitch in and begin developing it in you today!

Steve Patchin is director of Career Services at Michigan Technological University.

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