Lola’s Story Divides The Crowd - Proteus Leadership
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Lola’s Story Divides The Crowd

This article was taken from the February 2015 edition of Proteuslife magazine.

If you decide you divide!” This is what Tony Blair told Julia Gillard when she became Prime Minister.

That is why so many people sit on the fence and don’t make the decisions they need to make. They are scared what other people will think.

In November 2014 I took a leap of faith and stepped so far out of my comfort zone that it hurt. I am talking about the stage production of the Leadership Circus – Lola’s Story, that I wrote and performed across Australia. The show was twelve months in the making and nearly did not happen so many times as my logical brain took over asking questions like; Why would you put yourself through this? What are you doing? Don’t you realise that you might look ridiculous? What if this gamble does not work? And I could go on.

The great thing about the logical brain is that it makes you stop and evaluate exactly why you are taking a course of action, and that is a good thing! It only becomes dangerous when you succumb to its short-term views and its need for constant safety.

So why did I do it?

To truly understand this I need to take you back to where the inspiration came from; there were in fact two inspirational motivators.

Inspiration #1 – The Circus in Perth

I was sitting on the balcony of an apartment in Perth, Western Australia overlooking a large strip of lawn that ran adjacent to the main esplanade, opposite the Swan River. There were people everywhere, participating in all sorts of sporting activities. Some were playing soccer, others touch football and others were just walking or jogging to get fit. There were teams practicing together, honing their skills for the next competitive battle that they had in front of them. It was indeed a hive of activity.

It was such an uncommon sight to have this amount of activity and space happening right on the very edge of a capital city. I was told that this space was used for many major events throughout the year, including being used as a landing strip for the small acrobatic airplanes that competed in an obstacle race over the river.

All of a sudden, and what seemed out of nowhere, a line of huge trucks arrived and proceeded to park in a circle across the grassed area. It reminded me of a western movie when the Indians were attacking and the cowboys put their wagons in a circle to protect themselves from danger. No matter what activity people were involved in, they all stopped what they were doing to witness this amazing convoy of vehicles parking on the lawn, right next to them.

It didn’t take long for everyone to realise that the circus had arrived in town and was about to take over a large part of their grassy playfield.

Now this could have been a huge imposition to many of those involved in their sporting activities, but somehow, the arriving circus did not get a negative response. People just repositioned themselves to another part of the grassed area and continued on with their activities.

Then, just as the trucks had suddenly appeared, out of the vehicles emerged a team of people ready to do what they had done so many times before.

Like a well-oiled machine, the circus team began to unload the contents of the trucks and as I observed the well established process that was unfolding in front of me, I was inspired to write about it.

It was fascinating to watch all of the activity. Just like an army of ants gathering food, here was a team of people that had been sent ahead to set up and make ready a venue for the main event.

Everyone understood his or her role and everyone was in place to perform it.

As I watched, I began to think about the logistical planning and internal dynamics that would be required in setting up and running a circus and how the same planning principles and processes might apply to any organisation.

A circus has one very clear objective, and that is to bring joy to people by helping them to escape from their daily routine. It will make them laugh, it will make them gasp and it will make them ask themselves “how”?

Inspiration #2 – Smoke and Mirrors

One evening I was treated to tickets to a show playing in a small Sydney theatre called – Smoke and Mirrors. It was without doubt, one of the most wonderful, powerful and moving shows that I had witnessed.

The show focused on a group of amazing circus performers that wowed us with their incredible skills and talents.

In the middle of the show, all of the performers did a procession across the stage and in that procession was a very unattractive misfit – the bearded lady. She was not seen as important to the show, nor played a very large part in it, up to that stage.

About two thirds of the way through, this poor tortured soul returned, and with just a single spotlight on her, sang one of the most powerful and moving songs that I had ever heard.

There was not a dry eye in the place as she communicated her pain and sadness through the song.

In four minutes, she moved from an insignificant member of the cast, to the star of the show, as we were forced to look past her outward appearance and discover who she really was, inside.

So, let me introduce you to my characters from The Leadership Circus – Lola’s Story, and what they each shared with us during the performance.

Lola – The bearded Lady and the main character. Rejected all of her life and longing to be accepted. As she tells her story she finally discovers that life can be OK when you learn to not reject yourself. That there is hope no matter how you feel at the time.

Peter – works on the tent crew with a group of macho guys who continually mock him because he suffers with minor mental health issues. He is one of the hardest workers in the circus but the constant ribbing really gets him down.

Ethel – has spent her whole life in a wheelchair. She works in the ticket office. She loves her life and her job and her positivity is a breathe of fresh air to everyone that comes across her path.

Tommy – escaped the war in Vietnam and came to Australia to prepare a place for his family, where they could live in peace and be safe. His family never made it! Imagine living with that.

Toby – was Gay! He put up with the discrimination all of his life, finally driving him to the point of suicide. What a waste of a talented life! He represented many others who have been in this situation.

Waldorf – The tight rope walker, known for his bravery and his lack of fear. He taught us that it is just as easy to live life 30 feet above the ground, as it is to walk 3 feet off the ground. We just can’t let fear rule us.

Dead and Alive – The clowns who bring joy to people every day and are the guardians of workplace culture doing everything they can to make life better for everyone else.

Paul – The strong man teaches us about discipline and how you only ever achieve success by doing the things you need to do every day, even if they seem mundane. The end result of discipline is certainly worth it.

Sergio and Olga – The trapeze artists, taught us that to truly be exceptional we must be prepared to put everything up for grabs and remove the safety nets that we have in place.

Esmeralda – The fortune-teller demonstrates the power of the mind and highlights the things that we can know and do if we just stop and take notice of what is happening around us, rather than constantly reacting – never learning from our mistakes.

As I began to bring these characters and their powerful messages to life, I was personally overwhelmed. I remember sitting in my office at home rehearsing, and at times just sobbing as I re-lived the real people and the real situations that I had based these characters on. It didn’t matter if I didn’t perform perfectly, because I am not a trained actor; the messages were so strong and so relevant that people needed to hear them.

So, what did I learn?

I learned that it is important to be brave, but just being brave is not enough, it is being prepared for what happens after you engage in the act of bravery.

The feedback stunned me, both in a humbling way and in a disturbing way.

People wrote to me and shared some of the most incredible and inspiring personal stories that I have ever heard, about things that had happened, and were happening, in their lives and how the performance and message helped them to deal with those issues.

Others said that Lola changed their lives. She made them look at how they spoke to people and treated those around them and acknowledged that they needed to change. In other instances, two people came to me after the show in tears, gave me a hug and turned around and went on their way. We didn’t have to communicate; Lola met them in a place that they needed to be met at the time.

I was truly humbled by so many of the responses I received!

But then there were the self-righteous 20%!

Over many years of being in leadership I have had my fair share of emails and letters advising me of all of my short comings and things that people did not like about me and my message, but I was not prepared for the absolute hateful responses that I received from a minority who should know better. It is best if I don’t repeat them, but to think that people who are leading others could still, in the 21st century, be so backward, so self-righteous and so hateful, staggered me.

But what they did was make me more determined to do everything I can to rid them of their influence and their power over others, even if it means putting my own reputation at stake. People are hurting out there in the big bad world and leadership is about alleviating their pain, not adding to it.

How can we be negative about a message of acceptance and inclusion? As Lola says so often in the show, “I just don’t get it!”

So, it is important for people who believe in this message to recognise these negative people, so that they are not allowed to influence others.

I call these people Bubble Dwellers. They are stuck in a bubble of self-righteousness that has no place for others or their views and they only come out of their bubble to criticise, quickly retreating back in so that they won’t be held accountable.

Here are some of the characteristics of Bubble Dwellers:

Bubble Dwellers

  • Everything is about them and only their view counts
  • They assess the world by their values and where they are in life at the time
  • They hunt in packs and are gutless alone
  • They say they believe in things, but then tear down anyone who actually does something about it – all talk
  • They are not brave and in fact although they won’t admit it they dislike any change that makes them feel uncomfortable or might mean they have to change themselves
  • Eventually, Bubble Dwellers become bitter – the sad thing is that they don’t see it, or the impact they are having on others. My key is not to take on board their narrow view of life. I use the analogy of cataracts on eyes. They gradually close over our lens until we go blind. But if we catch them early enough we can have our vision restored.

Do you know any Bubble Dwellers? Well, as Lola says, “call them on their behaviour and take away their power.” The great thing to remember though is that Bubble Dwellers are the minority and the other 80% are wonderful people trying to live a good life and accept others around them.

I call these people the Heart Dwellers! Here are some of their characteristics:

Heart Dwellers

  • They see the bigger picture
  • They consider the views and opinions of others
  • They stand up for what they believe in but accept the right of others to think differently
  • They understand what others are trying to achieve
  • They understand that compassion is also about honesty
  • They simply care

The message that Lola put across on stage was that of understanding, compassion and inclusion and while she and I still have breathe in our bodies, we will continue to push that message as hard as we can.

So, thank you Lola. The experience I had with you truly made me a better person. Yes, you split the crowd, but what was beautiful is that the cream rose to the top and because of you just a few more people on this planet are treating people better than they did before they met you.

Look out for Lola’s return!


Des Penny


Proteus Leadership is one of Australia’s premier leadership training and development companies. Proteus Leadership provides leadership courses and management training to a range of industries and assists organisations to build positive workplace cultures, implement change and Create Great Leaders. Proteus also facilitates a range of world-class management courses, workshops, conferences and events across Australia and beyond with the sole purpose of bringing leaders together to connect and grow.

“Our core purpose is to Create Great Leaders that will in turn build Great companies and develop Great teams.”

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