What a dance master can teach us about agile leadership

02 Jul 2019

What a dance master can teach us about agile leadership

Dr Nicola Müllerschön of Odgers Berndtson Germany hears how modern dance pioneer, Akram Khan, turns conventional ideas of identity, culture and leadership upside down.

Nicola Müllerschön met with Akram Khan in the middle of rehearsals for his new company production Outwitting the Devil which will premiere in Stuttgart in summer 2019. You can also watch an extended interview with Akram on the Odgers Berndtson YouTube Channel.

Nicola Müllerschön (NM): Akram, you won’t be on stage yourself, but you act as the choreographer bringing together six individuals. How do you find new talent and how do you know that they fit your company ethos?

Akram Khan (AK): We always have an open audition, then we select those that we feel would be right for this particular project. How do I know they are right? We really don’t until we have had a shared history.

The problem with auditions or any interview for a job is that you show the best side of yourself to get the job, but then you have to keep the job. For me, it is not just about talent and neither is it just about a specific character. I am looking for people who are willing to go on a very particular kind of journey. We are not asking them just to be dancers. We are asking them to be thinkers.

NM: You are British by birth, Bangladeshi by family heritage. You are the prime example of the intercultural ambassador which combines an awareness of important topics with a kind of branding. Is that a blessing or a curse?

AK: I am not an ambassador for a particular colour with a particular heritage. There are so many of us. I am just lucky and very fortunate to have been supported at the right time and the right place.

But I think it is important that we question who tells the stories. For too long, the Western white man has been telling the story and writing history for us. And it is just not right. It is just not fair. It never has been fair.

As you said, I am British-Bangladeshi, I tick the box, and that becomes your identity or your voice, and that is the very thing I am trying to lose now. I want people to ask the questions of not where he is from, but what are the questions he is asking. Not what is he, but what does he do? That breaks the identity. That is why I love movement, that is why I love dance so much because it has a huge scope to break boxes. I am interested in blurring past and future, we cannot just look at the future if we do not understand the past.

NM: How do you transfer this awareness to the economy, society, our everyday world?

AK: We don’t have a choice anymore. I think we all globally have a kind of dementia of our past mistakes. We don’t see the past as mistakes. We are doing this interview as if everything is fine. It is not fine. We will be eliminated by nature. But then again, maybe moving and waking up in the morning, gives us a sense of hope. To move is to hope. That is why we get up and do this interview.

NM: Is your work in the company also a possibility to spread the word? Is the company a tool for that vision?

AK: I think more so now than it ever has been. All companies have to embrace that. We have to do it because our children will be left.

We are the first generation to know that we are messing up the world, and we are also the last generation that can do anything about it. That statement in itself is terrifying. So it is not just my responsibility, it is all our responsibilities.

We are so hooked up on the present time, that we are not seeing the future by learning about our past mistakes. And it has to go right down to the top people, to heads of corporations, to politicians, because they have children, too. And money is not going to save them.

NM: You are 44 years old and you have retired from stage as a solo dancer. In the business world it is not necessarily the physical body that tells you when to stop, but social conventions. A 55-year-old person might find it hard to find a new job, despite the fact that there might be at least 10 years of working time ahead. In Outwitting the Devil, you work with an older dancer, the amazing Dominique Petit. Why did you choose him?

AK: I wanted to reflect time on the body. How we as a global society, especially Western society, see the old as irrelevant. We forget that the old is also the new.

NM: What is the benefit of including older people in the work environment?

AK: I tell you what was not the benefit with the older generation and the younger generation: the patriarchal system, the hierarchy. So I made it horizontal.

You are no less or more than me, whether you are 20, or whether you are 70. We all have an equal responsibility.

NM: When you started the company 20 years ago, you described its driving force thus: “The rules were simple: take risks, think big and daring, explore the unfamiliar, avoid compromise and tell stories through dance that are compelling and relevant, with artistic integrity.” Are these rules still relevant for you or have they changed?

AK: Well, for me now the rules are complex. Take risks, for sure, putting yourself in the unknown. The problem is, we are too comfortable we know where we are too often. You have a house, you have a street, you have friends in that street. Everything is set, everything is structured. You feel safe. We have to put ourselves in an unfamiliar place, so taking risks is important. Think big and daring...no, I would say, think small and daring.

NM: Why small?

AK: The faster you are, the bigger you are, the better it is; that is how you win. That Western concept in itself is the problem. We ask the wrong questions.

Think big? No, think small, think really minute.

We are looking always at ‘let’s go to the moon’, we are not looking at the molecules and atoms right here. I think we have to change the way we look at things. Explore the unfamiliar, absolutely.

NM: What advice would you give to business managers when setting rules and visions?

AK: Don’t talk, listen first.

NM: Thank you, Akram.

Watch an extended interview with Akram on the Odgers Berndtson YouTube Channel.

This article is from the latest ‘Culture’ edition of the Odgers Berndtson global magazine, OBSERVE.

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