'If you start every day with a class, followed by rehearsals, then performances evenings and weekends, you know what work is'
Ballet and business. Two words you don't often hear together, except in my life. I've gone from classical dancer to CEO of an advertising agency, maybe not the most traditional career route but the two have a surprising amount in common.
When I was five years old I was pretty much crippled with femoral ante version. As part of my physiotherapy I was made to do a few ballet classes and, just like that, I was hooked. However, no-one was more surprised than me to find myself in the finals of the prestigious International Prix de Lausanne at the age of 16.
A career in classical ballet followed and I loved it. I was the swan in Swan Lake, an ice queen as Ophelia, a bit heart broken (Queen of the Wilis in Giselle), a crotch scratching whore (Romeo and Juliet) and even a Zebra once (thanks to David Bintley's brilliant Still Life at the Penguin Café.)
At 25, however, I began to think about a life outside of ballet. I began to wonder if I had achieved as much as I could in the dance world – and I wanted to eat a proper meal again. I knew I wanted to stay in a creative world but I was also interested in business. I managed to convince a balletomane to give me a chance in an advertising agency.
And what a ride that has been. I have worked across continents, across sectors, and across some of the best agencies in the business before ending up as CEO of an independent creative agency, Dare.
So how did ballet help me and what could it teach you?
There is the obvious stuff, like having stamina and making sure you plan for resting time (Sheryl Sandberg and Arianna Huffington have thankfully brought this to the fore). There is the importance of partnership, the ability to handle the spotlight and pressure, and even that elusive sense that determination is 9/10ths of the battle. And of course, it's always useful to be able to break out into interpretive dance.
But a couple of skills have stood me in good stead.
The joy of discipline
I am very comfortable with the intensity it takes to run a business. In fact, I love it. If you start every day with an hour-and-a-half class, followed by at least six hours of rehearsals, and performances most evenings, including weekends, you know what it takes to work, really work.
Ballet also teaches you an incredible obsession with detail. You study the curve of your hand, the precise state of the pointe shoe, the exact calories required to get through a performance, the list is endless. As a result, I am entirely comfortable diving deep into data, numbers, or the specific craft point in an execution. There is no detail too trivial to take seriously.
The power in emotional availability
I was lucky enough to do a class with the inimitable Sylvie Guillem at the time she was an Etoile at the Paris Opera Ballet. Whilst she was technically astonishing, it was her ability to feel the role that made her truly great.
That emotional availability was what defined my career as a dancer to a large extent. I was never technically perfect, but I was utterly devoted to the narrative emotionally. You have to be able to look your dance partner in the eye, and the audience feels its truth. Admittedly, I tend not to look at my MD with love in the eyes, and I'm a long way off being a "tea and sympathy" operator but I believe in the power of emotional availability. I want my team and clients to feel that I am there for them.
Ultimately that plays out in the kind of creative work I do now in advertising. No matter what magical technology, service or campaign we are planning, it has to be connected to humanity. It needs to contain truth and passion, it's this that will set you apart from the self-serving, glutinous behaviours of alpha business types.
Even though I can no longer do fouéttes, ballet has been my competitive advantage in business and if I had to pass on one life lesson from it, it would be this from dancer and choreographer, Jacques d'Amboise:
"Just remember when you're not practising that someone somewhere is. And when you meet them, they will win."
Leigh Thomas is the CEO of Dare