The Leadership Circus - Proteus Leadership | Des Penny
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The Leadership Circus

The importance of someone to direct the show and take us on this incredible journey is so essential

I was sitting on the balcony of an apartment in Perth overlooking a large strip of lawn where people were participating in all sorts of sporting activities. It seemed like out of nowhere that a line of huge trucks arrived and parked in a circle across the grassed area. It didn’t take long to realise that the circus had arrived in town.

Like a well-oiled machine, they began to unload the contents of the trucks and so commenced a process that inspired me to write about it.

It was fascinating to see the process that unravelled. Everyone understood their role and everyone was in place to perform it. As I watched, I began to think about the internal dynamics that would be taking place in setting up and running a circus and how those same principles and processes might apply to any organisation.

So, welcome to The Leadership Circus – a place where everyone is part of the show.

The circus has one very clear objective and that is to bring joy to people by helping them to escape from their daily routine.

So let me introduce you to the cast of the Leadership Circus. Many of them you will have met before, but you may not recognise them or appreciate the importance of what they do in your circus.

I would also like to offer you a job in my circus, so as you read further, determine where you might best fit into the cast.

The Importance Of Having A Great Ringmaster

As the lights go down and the show is about to commence, a spotlight hits sawdust in the centre of the ring and there appears the director of our show – the Ringmaster.

They stand tall, they look important and impressive and much confidence is gained by the crowd, and the performers, from their presence in the ring. The importance of someone to direct the show and take us on this incredible journey is so essential. As exciting as the acts that follow might be, the Ringmaster pulls it all together, sets the scene for each act and keeps it moving forward.

So who is in charge in your circus? Do they stand tall, do they command respect and do they keep it all together? If not, the rest of the show will be disjointed and each act will compete against each other, not combining to present an amazing show.

Sound familiar? Start at the top, get your leaders right. Help them to understand their role and the importance of what they do. Someone must always be in charge, so equip them and give them the authority to lead.

A strong leader will bring confidence to the team and keep every department working towards a common goal.

Send In The Clowns

As the Ringmaster makes a hasty retreat for the curtains at the back of the stage, the atmosphere changes. Lights begin to flash and strobe across the stage, horns blow, performers begin to yell and the show is on its way, the clowns have entered the arena. They are there to lift people out of themselves and take them into a world of fantasy and joy. To help people to escape, forget about everything and just enjoy the moment.

The clowns in our organisations are the creators of atmosphere and culture. They keep the fun-factor alive, they lift spirits when they are down, they have the ability to make us feel good whatever the situation might be. Who are the clowns in your organisation? Are they still performing their role, or have we squashed their enthusiasm and turned them into just another cog in the wheel?

The show can go on, but without laughter and spontaneity it becomes a very miserable place to be.

Send in the clowns, bring back the laughter and let’s enjoy every part of our very short lives.

The High Wire Act

The atmosphere changes just as quickly as it began. There is silence as a single spotlight hits the roof of the tent. Standing on a small balcony are a team of trapeze artists, who for the next ten minutes will help us to experience both exhilaration and fear, all wrapped into one.

As they swing through the air with their lives totally dependant on each other we get the feeling that even though we know how risky this is, it is going to be OK.

These are the risk takers, the entrepreneurs within our businesses. They defy the odds and show us what is possible. However, we never really get the nature and precision of what they do until they remove the safety net. It’s just not the same with a net!

Who are the entrepreneurs in your organisation? Do they still make you gasp with excitement or do they continue to do the same old tricks with a firmly secured safety net?

Remove the net, learn some new tricks and WOW the crowd!

The Bearded Lady Changes Opinions

Not so long ago I went to a stage show called Smoke and Mirrors. It was truly one of the most wonderful productions I have ever seen on stage. In the show was a very unattractive bearded lady, who, when making her first appearance, was not accepted by the crowd and in fact was viewed as somewhat of a freak.

Later in the show she returned to the stage and sang one of the most powerful and emotional songs I have ever heard. Her voice and her story of pain sent shivers down my spine; it was truly amazing.

At the end of the song she received a standing ovation from a crowd. A crowd that had previously rejected her and seen her as a freak were now seeing her in a different light – she had truly won them over. This insignificant figure was now the star of the show.

You know, sometimes our journey to success is not pretty. It comes with initial rejection and pain but when we do break through, it is actually the differences that make the difference.

We need to look past the obvious and see the real talent that lies within each person. If we don’t then we may overlook a true star.

It doesn’t have to be pretty to work!

The Strongest Man In The World

You will never find a circus without a strongman. He is the specimen that everyone would like to look like. He stands at the bottom of the human pyramid, he lifts several people in the air at any one time. He is the foundation that has been created through years of self-discipline and training.

He can lift anything – but he can only lift it because every day he puts in the effort. Every day he knows that if he does not put the work in, he will lose his strength.

He fights procrastination and complacency because he knows that his very strength depends on it.

As people watch him they say, “I wish I looked like that”. “You can,” he says, but you must stick to your goals, never wavering because you don’t feel like doing something. A strong foundation comes from focus and discipline.

How many times has your foundation been cracked because you have lost your focus and not done the seemingly mundane which are often things that make a strong organisation.

Stay disciplined and focused!

Where Are The Animals?

The days of monkeys riding on the back of horses, lions jumping through fire hoops, elephants performing unnatural acts have well and truly gone. There are many reasons for this. One reason is simply the logistical and financial nightmare associated with carting, training, feeding, performing etc, all high effort for low reward.

The main reason though, is the power of popular opinion. It is not acceptable in the eyes of the majority of people now to keep animals in such an unnatural environment, doing things that they were not meant to do. It is classed as animal cruelty.

So just when we thought that the life of the circus was over, Cirque du Soleil entered the arena.

They brought to the world a new circus model. A far more exciting, dangerous and exhilarating style of circus that not only captured the hearts of existing circus lovers, but opened up a whole new market of circus supporters. It was no longer just for families and children. It was a reinvention that took the circus to a new level of performance and acceptance.

Have you removed the animal acts from your circus yet? When was the last time you sat down and reinvented what you do and how you do it? Unless we do this the power of popular opinion will mean that our clients will move on to a new, more exciting and more acceptable model.

Maybe it is time to reinvent!

Who Puts Up And Pulls Down The Tent?

But the show that is in progress can’t go ahead unless everything is prepared for them.

Like a team of ants, all with the same objective in mind, the crew who had the responsibility to put up the circus tent, went about their job.

What is a circus without an amazing tent to perform in? As I watched them, I wondered if they ever received any credit for their part in the process. These were the people that made it all possible. The people that cared for the tent, stitched it up when it ripped, ensured that it was dry and took enormous pride in setting it up and pulling it down.

How often we forget about these people in our organisations. They don’t get to go on stage and perform, but they make it possible for others to do so.

Let’s remember to reward and give recognition to our support teams!

The Ticket Box Manager

So the tent is up and the performers are ready; all is looking good. Now we need to sell tickets? You can have everything in place but if no one comes then it is all in vain.

Why is it that we get to spend so much time on developing our products and our people but are then often reluctant to be bold enough to sell them. If what we do does not result in healthy income, then the next performance that everyone has worked so hard to prepare for just may not happen.

If you have a great product that you know people will benefit from and if you believe in its ability to change lives, then go out and sell and sell the product then no one will come to your show and you will be forced to close down.

The Ticket Box Manager must sell with everything they have and through amazing service, prepare people for the experience they are about to have.

How do you sell your product? So what if they say no? If you have prepared an amazing show that will be of benefit to the people you are selling to, then be proud of what you have to share and do everything you can to make a profit.

That what sustainability is all about!

It Will Be Right On The Night

The beautiful thing about a team all working for the same cause and clearly understanding their roles is that although there may be problems along the way, it is always alright on the night.

When we realise that it doesn’t matter what a person does in your circus, everyone’s role is equal and when everything comes together, it is awesome!

So the show is now over, the fat lady has sung and the cast are warming down. What happens now? Well we rest, then we rehearse and then we do it all again.

You see it doesn’t matter whether you are a member of the circus, a world leader or a leader in an organisation; you perform, you rest, you rehearse, maybe try some new things, and then you do it all over again. But in the process you have made people laugh, you have helped them to be better, you have changed the way they think, you have done a great job.

So from one Ringmaster to another, when the spotlight hits the centre of the arena and you are on show, perform as if it was your last show. Give the best performance of your life, because you are now responsible for bringing together everything that people have been working on to create something magic. What an awesome privilege.

Let the show begin!


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.”

4 responses to “The Leadership Circus”

  1. Meg P says:

    You are quite amazing Mr Penny!! Your material is so relevant to the organisation I work for (& no doubt most others!) and I will unashamedly flog the Leadership Circus piece with as many leaders as I can…including my boss the CEO. Thank you.

  2. Maggie says:

    What an inspiring article Des, so uplifting and motivating. Thank you for sharing your wonderful insights!

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