Cirque du Soleil CEO Daniel Lamarre on leadership in a crisis

Daniel Lamarre was three months away from publishing what could have been a routine business book in 2020, when the COVID-19 crisis changed the fate of his company and the world. Within days of the initial outbreaks in North America, Cirque du Soleil, the famed Canadian circus brand where Lamarre had served as CEO for two decades, closed all 44 of its shows around the world — bringing revenue to an immediate halt and a no-no. win-situation for a business leader.

[Photo: Courtesy Daniel Lamarre]The rest unfolded as you would expect. Cirque du Soleil filed for bankruptcy and struck a deal with its key stakeholders – TPG Capital, China-based Fosun and Caisse de dépôt et placement – that provided liquidity that helped the company survive until it could resume operations.

Not surprisingly, a book was the last thing on Lamarre’s mind during those tumultuous times. “I called the publisher and I said, look, there’s no way I’m going to publish a book now,” he tells Fast Company. “The company is in utter distress and I would look stupid publishing in the midst of the crisis.”

But rather than shelved the project entirely, Lamarre rewrote the ending and gave a new insight into what it’s like to navigate a live event business amid a worst-case live event scenario. The result is Balancing Acts: Unleashing the Power of Creativity in Your Life and Work, which has been described as ‘part memoir. † † Partial Enlightenment Business Book,” and is now available from HarperCollins Leadership.

Lamarre stepped down as CEO late last year to become executive vice chairman on Cirque du Soleil’s board of directors. We spoke to him in January when his book was released – ironically, at the height of the ommicron wave. He spoke to us over the phone from his home base in Montreal. Further down is an excerpt from our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

[Photo: Courtesy Daniel Lamarre]Fast Company: What was the biggest business lesson you learned from navigating a company during a crisis?

Daniel Lamarre: The big lesson I learned was the importance of staying in touch with our cast and crew. Because in theory they were no longer our employees for many, many months. And we might have decided to say, you know, they’re no longer our employees, let’s forget them. But we did the opposite. † † We were in regular contact with them. And we were focused on being ready and on standby for the end of the crisis.

FC: I wonder how you dealt with balancing the needs of the artists against the needs of the people who were supposed to keep working – and probably working twice or three times as much. Have you had to think of ways to manage their workplace burnout?

EN: Oh, yes. That was a crazy, crazy time. We worked long days dealing with lawyers, bankers and accountants. † † The most important asset of an organization is its brand. And imagine, in 48 hours, the company went from $1 billion in revenue, 44 shows, to no shows, no revenue. Than [we had to] convince our lenders to become shareholders and convince them as shareholders to invest $375 billion to relaunch the company. [Why would] someone invests that much money to relaunch a company that has no revenue? It is based only on the strength of the brand.

FC: Were there times when you personally, or any part of your top team, doubted the strength of the brand?

DL: The truth is, yes. But the reality is that I’ve always rejected that thought. We were good, the small group here, in communicating that we will be back. That was the slogan we communicated to everyone.

FC: What were the most difficult choices you had to make at the height of the crisis?

DL: It was clear to let people go. That was terrible. But what the book is really about is what I’ve learned. I joined the company 21 years ago as a very traditional businessman, and now, 21 years later, I have learned from our directors, our creators, from our founder, from the Beatles and our Beatles show, and from James Cameron when we collaborated with him. Observing all those amazing creators has taught me to be much more creative in my personal and professional life.

FC: What is the most important lesson someone with a more traditional business background can learn from a creative business such as a circus or the performing arts?

DL: The first thing I would say is that in a politically correct environment people are nice to each other and don’t debate. So you present an idea, and I’ll be nice to you. I present an idea, and you will be nice to me. But it shouldn’t be like that. You and I should discuss. And at the end of the debate, the best idea must prevail. Much discussion is allowed in our creative process. † † to make sure you push the boundaries of your creativity.

FC: I understand that this is primarily a book about lessons in business and leadership, but if people are really interested in the gist of what happened in 2020 – with the investors, the creditors, TPG and all that sort of thing – they will then learn that? in this book?

EN: I think so. I’ve gone into quite a bit of detail here.

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