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December 1, 2017

Leaders and parents: Learn from the clown

The Monday after I participated in a clown workshop [1], I wrote a statement on our office-whiteboard: “Learn from the clown!” I hoped that my boss would ask me to explain. And, he did.
In this article, I share three learnings from the clown that can guide us in becoming better leaders, in the office and at home:
  • Don’t try to please
  • Take decisions
  • Create with restricted resources

A clown does not try to please

Before joining the workshop, I thought of clowns as clumsy entertainers begging for attention at children’s birthday parties or filling the breaks of circus shows. The workshop showed me another face of the clown so that today I understand that a clown earns the audience’s respect by resisting the urge to please.
In fact, clowns make us laugh by holding up the mirror to us. They offer a change of perspective that helps us to gain a clearer picture of our flaws. A pleasing clown would sweet-talk, try to distract us from our discomfort and thereby lose our attention. Instead, we tolerate the clowns’ fingers in our wounds because their message comes with compassion instead of judgement. Clowns win our hearts by being imperfect and by inviting us to be imperfect with them. [2]

A clown takes decisions

The most underrated talent of the clown is the ability to make quick decisions and to bear the consequences without blaming others. To succeed, clowns must choose the adequate medium and appropriate target from their abundant repertoire and perform with confidence. It is the unexpected joke that will trigger the awaited laugh of the audience and therefore, clowns must tease without crossing the line separating a professional from a clumsy entertainer.
Professional clowns know that once they have decided on their act, they cannot blame anyone else if they fail. Instead, they will fail greatly if they must and celebrate failure with perfect exaggeration. If a clown tried to take a joke back, apologised or blamed, the clown would lose the most precious asset: the audience’s respect.

A clown creates with restricted resources

To me, the beauty of a clown-performance lies the way they invite the audience to see things that are not there. During the workshop, we were asked to pair up and explore the world of our imagination. We created anything from flowers to cars, and sounds, trusting that our peers would accept the invitation and play along with curiosity. It was this exercise that made me realise how much I used to hamper creative interaction through my default response of “yes, but”.

“[…] when you apply “Yes, and” to life, people feel heard, valued and supported. It creates collaboration in times of conflict and engagement in times of trouble.”

Karen Hough

Consider the different energy the two following sentences trigger: “Yes, we can try this new approach but let’s ask for suggestions first” and “Yes, we can try this new approach and let’s ask for additional suggestions.” While the first reply downplays the idea of trying a new approach, the second validates the idea and adds builds on it by adding a new aspect. A curious “yes, and”-attitude fosters engagement in more constructive conversations that will inspire instead of limit.

The nutshell to take home

The clown is an underestimated role model from whom we can learn, as aspiring leaders and as parents since all three earn respect from their peers through distinct behavioural patterns. We respect our leaders and parents for their courage to speak out with compassion instead of judgement and their ability to allow imperfection and failure. We value our leaders and parents for making decisions and dealing with the consequences without blaming. And, we respect them for hearing us and granting our ideas the space to grow.

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[1] Special thanks to Stephan Kinsch and Lola Feltz for animating the clown workshop and pushing my fellows and me out of our comfort zones to find the clown in ourselves.

[2] Watch this video for a nice example of an improvised clown performance