Lessons From The Bolshoi

I had a very interesting conversation yesterday with another professor. He had just read the book by Jim Collins, Good to Great. Collins calls is a prequel to his book, Built to Last. I pulled it out and started reading it again last night. I am not a fast reader so it will take me more than one night to read, but I had forgotten how good of a book it is. It proposes a descriptive model of how organizations progress from being good to becoming great. Collins argues it all starts with level five leadership, a leadership style based on the foundation of humility and professional will.

I think we can contrast the previous statement to learn lessons from the Bolshoi brouhaha. In January the Bolshoi ballet’s artistic director arrived home in the evening, only to be greeted by a shadowy figure who threw acid on his face. His eyes, as well as his face, were severely burned. I first heard about this on NPR, when the station aired an interview with the gentleman. Since then I have learned that the Bolshoi is filled with artistic squabbles that result from how the artists are compensated for their work. “Dancers are paid primarily according to the amount of time they spend on the stage, so an understudy may not be completely heartbroken if the lead ballerina breaks an ankle.”

Schumpeter, an editorial that runs weekly in the Economist, discussed this in this week’s magazine. The Bolshoi is known for its confrontations. Needles inserted into costumes, broken glass in the tips of ballerina shoes, dead cats tossed on stage in lieu of flowers, and alarm clocks set off during quiet moments on stage. Schumpeter says, “Ballet is not for sissies.”

I wish I could say that the Bolshoi is different than other organizations, but it isn’t. The level of bad form, as Captain Hook tells Peter Pan, is common throughout organizations. Gossip runs rampant, and is enjoyed, in all organizations. And bad decisions frequently lead to individual and organizational failure. This is why I think Collin’s ideas are germane. How we reward, the economic environment, and our beliefs concerning the need stars within organizations feed the chaos. What gets rewarded gets done; if short-term profits are emphasized then that is what will be accomplished. When we are in an economic downturn, if we overreact we will create what Towers Watson calls “trauma organizations.” These trauma organizations will take drastic steps to survive. And when we focus our hiring efforts on getting the best and the brightest, instead of what Collins calls the right ones, we end up with the prima donnas that will put glass in their competitor’s shoes.

Collins lays out the path to greatness within his flywheel model. Becoming great starts with humble and strong leadership; I would add service. Humility, Service, and Professional Will, are the drivers for modern leadership. Becoming great includes having the right people on the bus. Collins argues that people are not our greatest assets, the right people are. Once you know where you are going and have the right people on the bus, you must never give up. However, you must confront brutal facts. Reality and will mix here.

The fourth element of those companies that are great is what Collins calls the Hedgehog Concept. Instead of continuing activities for the sake of continuing them, you must determine what you are deeply passionate about, what drives your economic engine, and what you can be the best at in the world. The graphic he uses is a Venn Diagram. Where the three circles intersect is where you want to focus your efforts. There is also a culture of discipline and technology accelerators that help an organization become great.

The Bolshoi is an extreme example of what many of our organizations are; extremely creative, filled with opportunity, but missing the mark because it is focused on tradition. The world has changed and continues to change, and if our organizations are going to be great, then we need to recognize what from our past has worked, and what we need to do to go forward. I, for one, don’t want to arrive home and find someone waiting for me to do something harmful. I want inovative organizations that are looking to the future creatively with humility, service, and professional will.

And that is my thought for the day!


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