What can CEOs learn from choreographers? It starts with fire

For me, the very concept of business leadership is framed by my experiences in the world of dance. And as I’ve spent the past few years living in this space between two worlds, I’ve come to understand just how integrated they actually are.

Being a choreographer is not easy, both financially and physically. It’s a challenging profession that creates moments of frustration because you can’t do something, along with moments of awe because you can’t believe you can and did do something.

But no matter your day-to-day experiences, the act of making dance — just like the act of building a business — has to start with a fire. It’s hard work that requires discipline, dedication and perseverance. And, simply put, both artists and entrepreneurs understand wholeheartedly that you cannot create greatness without that fuel.

Both pursuits require this burning sense of urgency and a passionate drive to make something that does not exist. It’s this desire to create that marks the first shared trait of an exceptional choreographer and a truly powerful business leader.


Moving toward a vision

Leading the SUM Innovation team is perhaps my greatest work as a choreographer in that I am exploring my own patterns of thinking, challenging myself with new information, staying wide open to possibilities, and working alongside a team as we move toward the creation of my vision.

So here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:

1. Dive deep into your creative and critical thinking skills.

As a choreographer, you have to find the path toward manifesting your vision. You have an idea, and you start moving. As you move, your creative facilities are informed by the knowledge of culture, society, history, composition, music, anatomy, and any other information that lives inside you. The process of making dance is this abstract, nonverbal experience of following your curiosity.

But creating dance also requires an active engagement of critical thinking. It requires that you translate movement into words and actions, articulating to others what you’re aiming for, so that this abstract thing can be made real. It requires the discipline of hours crafting movement in the studio, rolling up your sleeves and asking tough questions about the thing you’re searching to discover, so that you can make meaning for others, too.

This multifaceted, multidisciplinary, rigorous and agile mindset is the same facility that a CEO must have to build a business.

2. Unravel the power of group imagination.

Nothing great is built by one man on an island, so imagine the possibilities of creating your vision in concert with others. The best choreographers learn to hear the individual voices of their dancers — rather than suppress or ignore them — and work to integrate those voices into their own visions. Of course, you need to select the right people to join your team. But it then becomes a matter of folding these voices up into your own so that there’s a mutual investment in the pursuit of creation.

Now, it’s important to find a compassionate and respectful way to integrate these voices. You need to honor their contributions but not lose sight of your own. This comes down to effective communication. Whether you’re in a boardroom or a dance studio, you have to be intentional in the way you present your thoughts, order your ideas, and guide folks toward a desired outcome.

3. Keep an open mind — remembering that the show must go on.

Perfect does not exist, and things will not always go as planned. That’s OK! The responsibility of leadership includes challenging how you perceive your own team, staying open to possibilities, shifting your expectations, and constantly allowing for new insight to feed the journey toward manifesting your vision.

This openness, for example, allows choreographers to see what’s possible with their dancers as they craft movement. The best choreographers will work with their dancers, not against them, to make magic happen. And if the dancer simply can’t do something, you serve no one by forcing him to fit a box.

This is the same with employees. The good news is that if you can tap into this state of awareness, and keep your eyes and ears wide open and your organization agile, you will succeed no matter the original intent.

Ultimately, every choreographer (and performing artist, for that matter) knows that the show MUST go on. Sometimes you have to let go to let that happen.

4. Relentlessly observe the Golden Rule.

 Be loyal to your people in both your words and your actions. To put it simply, treat others as you’d like to be treated. The best choreographers respect their dancers’ artistic and technical capacity as much as they respect their humanity.

You’re working with people, not machines. It’s hard work being a dancer. It’s sometimes hard to be an employee, too, and building productive working relationships demands a non-technocratic, mutual respect. As we steer our organizational ships, we need this symbiotic dynamic with our crewmates to keep the boat on course.

5. Seriously, have some fun!

With a passion for what you do, a good relationship with the people you do it with, and the collective mindset to achieve your goals, a little enjoyment will come with the territory. Let the fun happen, and help your team enjoy what they do. Choreographers who maintain a sense of play as they work toward crafting their visions create enjoyable atmospheres for their dancers to thrive. Think about the environment you’re creating, and don’t forget to smile!

Obviously, the typical CEO doesn’t have to whip out the perfect jazz sequence or concern himself with the depth of his plié. Despite these differences in form, the pursuit is the same: to create something awesome out of nothing.

Mathew Heggem, known as the dancing CEO, is the co-founder of SUM Innovation. From #AccTech overhauls to full-time CFOs, this NYC-based accounting consulting firm helps fast-growth businesses and global entrepreneurs transform their businesses through the power of numbers. Mathew also originated the #SumTech initiative, an annual summit that explores the intersection between accounting, technology, and entrepreneurship as it relates to trends within the SUM ecosystem. In service to that very ecosystem, he’s currently acting as the interim executive director for the nonprofit brainchild of SUM — Mission Control Center — which helps small organizations collaborate through a PEO and shared back-office platform. Mathew is also a nationally recognized, award-winning dance artist choreographing for Left Side Labs.