Those who have spent time in Paris know that a favorite pastime is to sit in a café with a glass of wine, or perhaps “un ‘ti noir arrossé” (an espresso with a glass of Calvados) and watch the passing scene. Another favorite pastime in Paris is watching street performers; in the afternoon behind the Centre Pompidou there is a Mecca of sidewalk entertainment.
In the evening, you would start out at the square across from the St. Germain Des Prés Church. A few steps away is the romantic Place de Furstenberg, where you can listen to guitarists sing songs in the style of Jacques Brel. Then, a leisurely walk down the Rue St. André des Arts would bring you to the Quartier Latin, bustling with performers of all styles, a cornucopia of free entertainment. It seems so long ago, in the late seventies, that I found a place among the jongleurs for a summer. Even more amazing is to think that one performer among them left me with important lessons for the business world!
One evening I encountered a very different kind of performer. Neither a juggler nor a flame thrower, John Gays was best described as a simple story teller. But not just a story teller, John was the creator of street theatre and his audience became thespians under his deft direction. This bard of the street told simple fairy stories; one of my favorites was Red Riding Hood. Under John’s direction, the tale of girl and wolf became a political allegory with spectators portraying political figures of the day and becoming foils for John’s wicked wit.
One evening, John sensed that there were a large number of English speakers in the crowd. Speaking only French, John asked if there was a person in the crowd who spoke English. I volunteered, and became part of the show, translating John’s patter. He immediately informed the crowd that I was not telling the truth; I spoke American, not English and proceeded to mimic my accent with perfection.
After the show, John invited me to meet the next night to continue working together. We did so for the rest of the summer with our grand finale coming several weeks later on the square across from Notre Dame Cathedral. To prepare, we gathered old tin cans and stuffed them with cotton and kerosene to create a medieval atmosphere. Then, we put on what could best be described as the most extraordinary comic-improv version of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris to a crowd of several hundred.
Shortly after this, John left for southern France where he would earn his living performing along the Mediterranean coast for the winter. You may be asking right now; this sounds like fun, but what lesson could possible take away from the experience? The answer is that John showed one of the most important qualities of a leader. He stood before a group of people and created something special by motivating individuals to step out of their comfort zone and do something that they did not know they were capable of.
Isn’t that what business leadership is all about? The leader must have a vision of what is to be created, but cannot create that vision by him or herself. So the leader must pluck others “out of the crowd” and get them to trust his vision so as to create a masterpiece. It makes little difference if the masterpiece is an improv street play, a web business or a car, leading people by capturing their imaginations and directing them to create a vision is always the same.
This will be my last post of 2009, so I would like to wish all of you the best in 2010!