From Street Performer to Space Tourist: The Creativity of Cirque du Soleil’s Founder

Guy Laliberte’s parents (a PR executive and a nurse) hadn’t envisioned their son making a living by playing his accordion for tips from passersby. Hence, they weren’t exactly delighted when Guy informed them of his decision to bypass college in favor of becoming an artist. As much as they may have regretted his choice at the time, in retrospect, they’re probably thankful for the path he took. Their son went on to found of Cirque du Soleil, and he is ranked by Forbes as one of the 500 wealthiest persons in the world.

Guy Laliberte began his career as a street performer, amusing crowds by strolling around on stilts and wowing them by eating fire. Eventually he began touring with a ragtag troupe of fellow street entertainers and acrobats. In 1984, Laliberte approached the Quebec’s government with a proposal to have his group put on a circus as part of the province’s 450th celebration of Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Canada. He landed a contract worth over $1 million, and the artists subsequently launched a 15-city tour.

Laliberte and his fellow artists created a non-traditional circus, breaking with customary norms. First, they exclusively used human performers—no animals were included in the show. Second, they refrained from featuring specific entertainers, instead building the performance around a storyline. Third, they created a fast-paced, theatrical show appealing primarily to adults rather than kids.

Although a hit with audiences, the circus was not a commercial success in its early days. Laliberte soon realized that to become profitable the show would have to operate year-round, requiring it to book events further south during Canada’s winter months. To this end, Laliberte and the troupe’s other leaders decided to take a big risk. They spent all of their money to secure a spot at the 1987 Los Angeles Arts Festival, not even reserving enough cash to ensure a return voyage if the show flopped. Thankfully, the circus mesmerized American audiences, allowing the bet to pay off handsomely.

Following its American premier, the circus steadily gained popularity, as did founder, Guy Laliberte. Today, almost 25 years later, Cirque du Soleil has a repertoire of 22 shows, and it sells nearly as many tickets in a year as do all Broadway productions combined. Meanwhile, Laliberte routinely makes headlines on account of his whimsical lifestyle. Among other pursuits, he has paid $35 million to tour outer space, competed in professional poker tournaments, and purchased his own island.

What can we learn about creativity from Guy Laliberte and the birth of Cirque du Soleil? In short, by unleashing creativity leaders provoke doubt, initiate change, and incur risk.

Doubt – In launching a creative enterprise, a leader overturns the expectations and assumptions of others and provokes doubt.

Guy Laliberte’s parents certainly had apprehensions about his decision to follow a creative vision. Ultimately, their fears did not come to fruition. Yet, not all creative journeys end in success. As a leader, when should you allow the concerns of others to rein in your creativity? When should you press on despite the doubts and criticisms of those around you?

Change – Injecting creativity into your workplace means parting ways with the status quo.

Cirque du Soleil connected with audiences because it operated from a familiar platform, the circus, but it captivated audiences due to its creative incorporation of unanticipated, nontraditional elements.

To reap the benefits of creative innovations, you may need to scrap traditional ways of doing business. In leading organization change, how do you determine which customs to preserve, and which ones to discard?

Risk – Leaders inherently incur risk when they redirect resources in order to launch a creative vision.

Guy Laliberte put his financial prospects on the line in the hopes of breaking into the U.S. market, and he was rewarded for his taking the risk.

As a leader what criteria do you use when deciding whether to bet aggressively or to play your hand conservatively?

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