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When it takes two to be great

Heard a great leadership lesson from the unlikely world of ballet today. Wayne Sleep, the former Royal Ballet dancer, described how Ninette de Valois, founder and then director of The Royal Ballet, brought together Dame Margot Fonteyn, then 41 and on the verge of retiring, with the virtually unknown 21-year-old Rudolf Nureyev, to dance Romeo and Juliet in 1963.

There was nervousness and apprehension on all sides: from the two principals themselves and from the ballet world in general. De Valois could have been setting everyone’s reputation up for a spectacular fall, including her own.

But, her instincts told her that this pairing could create something great, accelerate Nureyev’s development by pairing him with the greatest dancer of her generation, and revive Fonteyn’s career. In effect, it lifted the latter to even new heights, and she continued dancing, astonishingly, until she was 61.

By breaking convention and seeing the possibility that others couldn’t see, de Valois created possibly the greatest pairing in modern ballet. They went on to dance twenty roles together in the next decades.

I am personally completely unmoved by ballet; it leaves me cold. But, there are so many leadership lessons in that story that I lost count. The three that stuck, for me, are:

1. Tom Peters is fond of quoting Warren Bennis – “Great leaders revel in the talent of others”. Absolutely. Bringing other people together and watching them reach heights no-one had dreamt of is an act of leadership.

2. Great leaders are prepared to look foolish, as Sir John Hoskyns said. Any of us who step up, in any situation, and say or do what needs to be said or done, regardless of ridicule, regardless of established convention, is performing a powerfully creative act of leadership.

3. The myth of individual creativity and of the individual as leader: It can take two, or more, to unleash incredible creativity. The same with leadership – from Hewlett and Packard to Pret a Manger founders Sinclair Beecham and Julian Metcalfe, it often takes two or more to lead creatively and some of the best leadership acts and the most creative cultures are formed by a partnership…or even by a mass of people all leading and following each other simultaneously (flash mobs, for example).

Wayne Sleep was talking on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

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