Daniel Lamarre of Cirque du Soleil: Making Creativity Your Strategic Advantage

by | Jun 24, 2024

Daniel Lamarre, the visionary leader behind Cirque du Soleil’s global success, shares his journey of nurturing one of the most innovative entertainment companies in the world. As President and CEO, Lamarre explores how his blend of creative leadership and business acumen has fostered innovation and led to the creation of some of the most mesmerizing performances seen around the world.

In this episode of the Culture Leaders Podcast, Daniel delves into the ethos of Cirque du Soleil, revealing the core principles that drive the company’s culture of creativity and excellence. He reflects on the challenges and triumphs of leading a global creative powerhouse and the importance of maintaining a human-centric approach in business.

Join us for this inspiring episode as Daniel Lamarre shares his unique perspective on leadership, the dynamics of creativity and innovation, and his dedication to transforming Cirque du Soleil into a beacon of artistic and entrepreneurial excellence.

Notable Quotes

“My purpose is definitely to create jobs for artists. I have the luxury of offering jobs to more than 2,000 artists, and I’m so proud of it.” – Daniel Lamarre


“You cannot come while there is a rehearsal and dictate… Your job is much more to mobilize people.” – Daniel Lamarre


“We like to say at Cirque du Soleil that the star is the show, which means we should all keep our ego at the door… and convince everybody else that you are there to serve the ultimate artistic content, which is the show.” – Daniel Lamarre


“If you’re not able to be agile as an organization and if you’re not able to be cohesive as an organization, you will just not survive.” – Daniel Lamarre




Reach Daniel at:

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/daniel-lamarre-b84ab5150/ 

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/daniellamarreflash/?next=%2F 



Website: https://www.jessicakriegel.com/

Jessica’s LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/jessicakriegel

Culture Partners LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/company/culturepartners/ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jess_kriegel/ 


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Daniel Lamarre: Less than 1 percent of artists are successful living through their passion. And I have the luxury of offering jobs to more artists—more than 2000 artists.

Jessica Kriegel: From balancing athleticism with artistic expression in college to leading one of the world’s most groundbreaking entertainment companies, Daniel’s journey reflects a powerful blend of leadership and creativity. Through his story, we’ll explore how adaptive leadership and deep respect for creative processes are critical in cultivating spaces where art and performance not only coexist, but thrive spectacularly.

Daniel Lamarre: If you have a great show, you have a great business. If you don’t have a good show, you have no business. So that’s what you have to find: the sweet spot to make a show amazing, but also to make as much money as possible.

Jessica Kriegel: I’m Dr. Jessica Kriegel, and this is Culture Leaders, where we decode the magic behind the masters of movements to unleash the power of culture. This is the story of Daniel Lamarre, a master of a movement to help the arts achieve financial success.

Jessica Kriegel: So I’m going to start the same way that I always start, which is asking you, what is your why?

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, you know, my purpose is definitely to create jobs for artists. I love doing it because it’s very tough for an artist. You know that less than 1 percent of artists are successful living through their passion, and I have the luxury of offering jobs to more than 2,000 artists, and I’m so proud of that.

Jessica Kriegel: So your book didn’t really go into the why that’s your why. I mean, did you have artistic parents? What was your childhood like? Sometimes it’s something to do with that. Did it come to you in adulthood? Why is that your why?

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, it’s interesting. Because, you know, I was one of the few guys that would play for the football team and also play for the theater company at the college level. And that was unusual. Normally you were identified as a sports person or as a cultural, artistic person. And when, when you look back to it, that’s what Cirque is about, because Cirque is a little bit of sports with the human performance, and it’s a lot with artistic content. So I think that’s why the background was good for me.

Jessica Kriegel: So you yourself were an artist at heart, as well as an athlete.

Daniel Lamarre: Yes. Yes, I was. I didn’t, you know, continue professionally because I went to become a business person more, but nevertheless, at heart, I’m an artist.

Jessica Kriegel: Yeah. So in order to love this book, though, you don’t have to be an artist or an athlete because what I took away from it were the lessons of leadership, the lessons of culture. And, you know, I read everything that there is to read about culture and business. And I was learning so much, and I want to ask you about specific nuggets throughout the book, if that’s okay, that jumped off the page to me. And I wanted to, if you were there with me as I was reading, I would have said, tell me more about this. And not a lot of people get the opportunity to do that. So the first is around, you talked about when you first joined Cirque, your job was to adapt to Cirque’s unique culture, not the other way around. That’s a very unique perspective for a leader to come in and say, you know, I’m not going to try and get them to get on board with my culture. I need to get on board with their culture. I think that’s pretty unique. Would you agree that that’s unique? And how do you know when you’re supposed to adapt to a culture and when you’re supposed to influence the culture?

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, that was pretty unique because before I joined Cirque du Soleil, I was more like a traditional business person, and leading a TV network was more traditional. When I joined Cirque, I thought that I was a quick learner and that I would get adapted very, very easily. That was not the case, because the culture here at Cirque is very, very different. I had to change my approach. I had to change my attitude. And that was the only way for me to survive here. But now what I see more and more, even if you’re the leader of an organization, you have to adapt your style to your employees. You have to observe the trend. In today’s world, young employees don’t want to be directed. They want to be convinced that you have a direction, a mission that is very clear.

Jessica Kriegel: Hmm. That’s interesting. I think if I had to guess, tell me what you think about this: a lot of leaders come in and they feel like they have to make their mark on a company. And that’s largely ego-driven or fear-based. It’s, “I got to prove my worth, and I’m going to do that by telling everyone what to do.” And so that wasn’t your approach. I mean, even as you became CEO, it still felt like you were always very respectful of what the employees needed and were driving in terms of culture.

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, that was key to me because you cannot come in while there is a rehearsal and dictate to the director of the show or to the artist, “You should be doing this and that.” I think your job is much more to mobilize people. We like to say at Cirque du Soleil that the star is the show, which means that we should always keep our ego at the door of this office. When you walk in the studio, you have to really convince everybody else that you are there to serve the ultimate artistic content, which is the show.

Jessica Kriegel: That’s interesting. So my parents met when my father was the owner of the Paradis Latin in Paris, which is like a cabaret-type show, right? Well, kind of like Le Moulin Rouge. And my mother was the artistic director of the Paradis Latin. They worked together for many years before they ended up being together. Side story: that’s moderately interesting. They had never dated or kissed or even held hands when my dad knocked on her door and proposed marriage to my mom. Isn’t that amazing? But I bring that up to say, I’ve been in this world of performers and artists, and there’s a lot of ego for people whose job is to perform, right? I mean, that’s kind of the nature. So it was interesting for me to see the emphasis on the lack of ego and the show being the star in a group of people whose whole thing is to get attention for themselves, right?

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah. No, you’re right. And as an artist, our performers, our artists, obviously, they have this dramatic sense of getting the attention of the public. And I think we’re open to it. And as a matter of fact, it’s part of who we are. But at the same time, it’s not because you’re a performer. It’s not because you are charismatic that you have to be a prima donna. I think that’s the nuance here, and that’s what we’re trying to push. We’re trying to push people to say, “You’re an amazing performer, but let’s use your artistic contribution to the entire artistic content, which is the show.”

Jessica Kriegel: So, can you tell our listeners about the idea of “Yes, I will explore that,” that you shared towards the beginning of your book, this being a tool in business? Yes, I will explore that. Tell us what you meant, what your tip was there.

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah. You know, when you work for an entrepreneur or a visionary, a guy like Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque, had a thousand ideas per minute, and he would jump in my office all the time saying we should be doing this, we should be doing that. And I’m proud to say that I never told him no. I always told him, “Yes, Guy, I will evaluate it.” And that was because if I would say no, it would have shown that I was not open to his idea. But then I would take the appropriate amount of time to do the analysis of this idea and say, “Guy, this is a great idea. It will work. We’ll make money.” Or, “This is not a great idea because we would lose money and it won’t work.” And the good news for me is that he was open to the results of my analysis.

Jessica Kriegel: So you really did do an analysis on every idea? Or did you pretend sometimes? Tell the truth.

Daniel Lamarre: Obviously, there were analyses that were much, much quicker than most.

Jessica Kriegel: Okay. So you, and then you end the book talking about focus. And so that feels like one of the balancing acts from which the book gets its name. Yes, I will explore that. And also we have to stay focused. I mean, is that one of the tensions that you think is one of your superpowers as a leader, figuring out when to focus and when to broaden your horizons?

Daniel Lamarre: Yes. Yeah, that was a really, really thin line because, on one hand, you have the artists and the creators that think that they never have enough money. And on the other side of the spectrum, you have the business people, the finance people that are telling me that we are spending too much money. So you have to find the right balance. And I became a referee here by listening to both sides. I’d love to organize a meeting with both sides and understand the arguments. Because I like to say that if you have a great show, you have a great business. If you don’t have a good show, you have no business. So that’s what you have to find: the sweet spot to make a show amazing but also to make as much money as possible.

Jessica Kriegel: Well, and that speaks to another great tip you had in the book about you like to be able to make a case against your own position. How do you know when to use that tool? When it’s important to make, give us an example, maybe, of a time when you actually made a case against your position and how that helped you.

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, first of all, I like to consult people a lot. So I would like to listen to a ton of people. But at the end of the day, an organization like ours is not a democracy. So someone has to make a decision. So I will spend a lot of time fueling the debate within a meeting to really listen to all points of view. And I will never hesitate to go through a process that is much more different than my own point of view because you cannot always trust your own point of view. So that’s why I like to debate and to make sure that at the end of the debate, the best idea prevails. It doesn’t matter if it comes from me or if it comes from anybody else, but let’s have the best idea prevail.

Jessica Kriegel: How do we get more leaders to understand that their own perspective is not always the golden perspective? That, I feel, is the thing that hinders progress nine out of ten times. Nine out of ten times it’s leaders who just feel right, and they’re righteous in their rightness. How did you get there? How did you become aware that maybe your perspective isn’t the only one?

Daniel Lamarre: It’s interesting because, for me, that was not an option. Thinking that you’re always right is so—because I did a ton of mistakes in my career, and I still do, and that’s okay as long as you learn from your mistakes. But we like to say here at Cirque that we have 5,000 pairs of eyes, which means that you can, through this amazing network of employees, enhance the ultimate solution that you’re going to come up with. So if you’re not open to their creativity, then you’re missing the point.

Jessica Kriegel: Yeah. Okay. So I have a thousand questions. Another one that you’ve just talked about is adaptability, the ability to adapt being so important. We did research last year with Stanford on understanding what is the best culture. And the best culture was an adaptive culture. Shockingly, maybe not shockingly, those that were able to shift their culture, so not leaning so hard into one way of being, but evolving over time is the winning formula. One of the debates we were having in our executive team meeting when we were looking at the research is, is there a difference between having a bunch of people who have an agility mindset, adaptive mindset on a team, and a team that has collective unified agility or adaptability? Do you understand what I’m trying to ask? What do you think? Is there a difference, and how do you nurture one versus the other?

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah. Yeah. To me, it’s very, very different because, you know, if you have all those individuals that are very agile and I would suspect very creative, and maybe the end result is not that good if they’re not cohesive. Right. You have some great individual people coming with their own ideas. But if it’s not cohesive, to me, it won’t work. So that’s why I’m trying all the time to mobilize people on an issue. And then adapt to the issue because with the new technologies that are happening and that are totally disruptive on a regular basis now, if you’re not able to be agile as an organization, and if you’re not able to be cohesive as an organization, you will just not survive.

Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, exactly. Well, I’m glad you said that because that was my position in the conversation. So we’re aligned. Oh my goodness. Okay. So, can you talk about the four criteria? This was another highlight for me. I earmarked that page of the book. You talked about four criteria. What are they and how did you come up with them?

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, to us, this is fundamental. You know, when we look at a new project, the first criterion is: Is there a creative challenge for us? Because we don’t want to repeat ourselves all the time. So, that’s the first criterion. The second criterion is the partner with whom we’re talking. Do they share the same values as us? Because we don’t want to be with a partner that will be too different from us or will not share the same values. The third one, obviously, is to make a profit. We’re a private company. And the fourth one is how can we ensure that we and our partner share our commitment to social responsibility and community involvement? And I can tell you that those four criteria are an amazing guideline to see if you will do good business with your partner or not. When we went through the four criteria with the Beatles before we did the deals to do a Beatles show, that was very, very interesting because not only did they share our values, but I think it became an incentive for them to do business with us.

Jessica Kriegel: Hmm. I’ve told that part, that story so many times of, you know, I don’t need to, I’m not coming in with a pitch. You’re a creative master. We’re a creative master. Let’s see what happens. And that kind of goodwill in negotiation about, let’s just see where this takes us. I love that idea. So those four criteria, how did you come up with that? Was that you with a journal on the beach, or was it a boardroom conversation? Like where did they emerge from?

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, that was a kind of debate that I was referring to before, which is we came together and we said, “Look, we have to agree on some criteria that whomever is negotiating a deal with a partner, make sure that those criteria are respected by our potential partner.” And I have to tell you that was a very, very interesting exercise because then again, all of us grew behind those criteria and it has become another way to strengthen the internal relationship between us.

Jessica Kriegel: So do you think those are universal criteria for businesses generally, or does each business need to create their own?

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, I think each company has to create their own, but they have to start the conversation before they put the criteria on the table. They have to all agree on what the values of the company are because those criteria should meet their values.

Jessica Kriegel: Yeah. So there’s another amazing point you hit. This is why I love this book because it was, the storytelling was fascinating. I’m not even particularly into the Beatles. I’m sure there’s a lot of people who love it because they’re into the Beatles, and the stories of you actually meeting Paul and George and Ringo were incredible. But also you had so many specific, actionable solutions, tools, and tips and tricks that were in there. There’s another one about crisis management and three points that you had around how to deal with crisis, which had to happen a couple of times. Can you share those three points for the listeners?

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, I had the opportunity to work in the past in a very important crisis. And what I’ve learned is the first thing to do is you have to have one leader, only one decision-maker, because when there is a crisis, there are a lot of people that want to be involved and want to position themselves as the savior of the company. But it doesn’t work. You just have to have one decision-maker, a leader, that will take the decision. You have to understand the magnitude of the crisis because sometimes we overreact, and that’s a big mistake, or sometimes we don’t react enough or not quickly enough. So you have to be able in a very quick period of time to assess the magnitude of the crisis. And then you have, for the moment of the crisis, to forget all the financial short-term impact on your company. So you have to really focus on solving the crisis. We know it will have a bad impact on the financials, but that’s not where the focus should be. The focus should be on resolving the crisis.

Jessica Kriegel: That’s a hard decision to make in the moment, especially when emotions are high, I’m sure.

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, no, it is. And that’s why you have to remain very calm and very focused and avoid all the noises that you have around you because during a crisis, there are a ton of noises from the media, from the public, from your employees. You have to remain very calm and focused.

Jessica Kriegel: Yeah, it’s like they say when there’s an accident that, you know, I was doing the first aid training and the first thing they said is don’t just shout out, “Call 9-1-1.” Identify the person, point at them and say, “You call 9-1-1.” Make someone responsible for it. Otherwise, it just becomes chaos. So you also talk about the power of emotion in pushing deals forward. I mean, it’s an interesting idea because in business you hear a lot of people say, “It’s not personal, it’s business.” It’s “Don’t get emotional. It’s just a transaction.” How do you know when to be emotional and when not to be?

Daniel Lamarre: First and foremost, being emotional is not a sign of weakness. You are allowed to be a sensitive person. When something happens, when there is a crisis that touches one of your employees or one of your shows, you cannot go there with a totally corporate speech because that’s the last thing that the employees want to hear about. They want to understand and see by your body language that you show empathy, you show sensitivity, and you will focus on the human side of what’s going on, then the corporate portion. In my view, I’ve been quite emotional when we went through some tough situations and I think I gained credibility. I didn’t lose credibility.

Jessica Kriegel: Yeah. I mean, my favorite part of your book is you start the book by saying, “You may be wondering why you want to take business advice from a guy whose company is bankrupt, and here’s why.” Yeah, I agree. It was so refreshing, you know, it was just so wonderful. And then the journey is, that’s the whole point. You said this earlier today that we all make mistakes and, you know, arguably you made them. COVID wasn’t a mistake you made, right? I’m sure you do tell the story of mistakes that were made, but ultimately it’s just a journey that we’re on. And it’s all about how you react in that journey.

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, no, totally. And interestingly enough, this book was ready to go. And I was about to publish the book right in the middle of COVID. And then I called the publisher and said, “I cannot publish a book. I would look very, very stupid.” And the publisher says, “Of course, Daniel, you’re right. We cannot do that. But if you keep writing, maybe at the end of COVID, if you emerge, then maybe the book will be more interesting,” and I think that was the right decision at the time.

Jessica Kriegel: Oh yeah, it was great. So compelling. So, I’m curious what you’re doing now. You’re no longer CEO. Are you chairman of the board?

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, I’m executive vice chairman of the board. My job is to continue the relationship with our key partners like MGM and Disney and a lot of promoters. And now that my friend Stefan is the CEO, I’m supporting him. But more interestingly, I’m doing what I love to do, which is business development. So I’m working on some amazing new shows that will be presented around the world in the coming few years.

Jessica Kriegel: Any artistic partnerships that you can reveal here, or do we have to wait and find out?

Daniel Lamarre: No, I think our next show in Nuevo Vallarta is going to be part of that. Probably one of our next statements is going to be presented at the Vidanta resort. It’s a dinner show, but in a very, very special theater that is being built for us. And I’m very excited about that project.

Jessica Kriegel: Okay. That’s exciting. I’m excited for it too. So, you told this great story about George Martin and getting to a deadlock with the Beatles and whenever being in a deadlock, finding a creative way out. Are there other stories you can share with us in your experience about being in a deadlock and finding that creative way out and how you go about doing it?

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, you know, we had the opportunity to replace our show, La Nouba, at Disney in Orlando. And they came with this. They said, “Look, if you want to keep the theater, you have to come up with a show idea that will include the intellectual property of Disney.” And there was a lot of turmoil internally because everybody was saying, “You know, I don’t want to see a show with Mickey Mouse being an acrobat,” or, you know, people were debating internally. And then one creator said, “Let me come back with something.” And he came with this clever idea, because what is the most touching part of Disney, even today, is that they almost invented the animation movie. And so the guy came with this idea saying, “We’ve paid a tribute to the Beatles. Why can’t we not pay a tribute to Disney animation?” And then all the controversy there was about this idea became very, very positive because everybody admired the Disney animation. And it went from being a very negative artistic challenge to becoming a very, very positive artistic challenge. Now we have a great show in Orlando and we’re proud of it.

Jessica Kriegel: Wow. That’s wonderful. I just heard a great story about Disney and that Walt Disney had imagined creating this park, right? Before it started with animation and then he had this vision for a park and apparently he died before it was complete. And once it was complete, they were standing there looking at it with Walt’s brother. What’s his brother’s name? Roy or something like that.

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah. Roy.

Jessica Kriegel: And Roy, someone looked at Roy and said, “Oh man, can you believe what Walt would think if he could see this?” And Roy said, “What are you talking about? He did see it. That’s why it’s here.” I love that story. I mean, it feels like you are that visionary, but also operationalize as a CEO. Was it hard for you to step away from the CEO role?

Daniel Lamarre: No, that was first of all, my decision. I thought it was time to have someone that will come with new ideas that will be stimulated to lead the company for many years to come. And the reward for me is that the board wanted me to stay here, which is great and fun, but I’m so fulfilled with those new shows that we’re developing that I don’t regret one ounce of that decision.

Jessica Kriegel: I’m so glad to hear that. So we have a caller who has dialed in and has a question for you. I can’t keep you all to myself on this episode. So let’s take that caller and see what they have for you.

Guest Caller: Hi, Daniel, what was the most challenging period that you can remember in your career? And how did you overcome it? What was the context? And do you ever feel echoes of that same kind of circumstance come back to your life? And how do you recollect on it now? Thank you.

Daniel Lamarre: Obviously, there is nothing comparable to COVID. COVID was a huge disaster. Within 48 hours, we moved from 1 billion in revenue to zero revenue, from 5,000 employees to no employees. And there are a couple of things that we did right. First is to stay in touch with our consumers by creating CirqueConnect and having 70 million viewers being part of that. And that demonstration by itself was what convinced the bankers and the new investors to support us because just imagine the meeting for a moment. You’re looking at someone saying, “I have no more shows, no more revenues, and I need 350 million to relaunch the company.” So that was my pitch. The only way I’ve been able to convince the people to continue to support us financially is by showing them that 70 million people from around the world were waiting for Cirque to reopen.

Jessica Kriegel: You told the story in your book about how surprised you were about the performers staying in shape and rigging contraptions in their living rooms and their backyards and how quickly they were able to get back into it when they got back. I mean, tell us about that. That was an incredible story.

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, that was rewarding to us because what we did is, you know, remember at the time they were no longer our employees legally, but we have to continue to communicate with them as if they were our employees. And the key message every month when we had our monthly meetings with them was, “We’re not going to be able to relaunch the company if you’re not in shape.” And they’ve been very, very creative. As you said, training in their basements and their garages and performing. People thought that it would take six months to reopen one show. We have reopened 30 shows within one year.

Jessica Kriegel: Wow. I mean, that was incredible. And it speaks to the culture that you had, the commitment, the passion, the vision that they were all bought into. And I believe that brand and culture are two sides of the same coin. Brand is the external manifestation of your culture, and culture the internal manifestation of your brand. So you had these 70 million viewers, but also the commitment from your employees because it’s, it’s like, you can’t keep them apart. The audience members and the performers, they want to be in love and together. Your job is just to make sure they can financially.

Daniel Lamarre: That’s right. And that was the main reason for our relaunch so quickly.

Jessica Kriegel: Well, I have one last question for you, which is what is one thing that you don’t get asked about very often or ever on these types of interviews that you really wish more people would ask?

Daniel Lamarre: Yeah, it’s about our community involvement, you know, because when people ask me, what are you the most proud of? Is it that you’re selling 13 million tickets a year? Is it the quality of your show? Is it that you’re a creative powerhouse? I’m proud of all of that, but the one thing I’m the most proud of is our social involvement. Our studio is built in the poorest neighborhood in Montreal. We are involved with the One Drop Foundation. We are helping youth at risk. And to me, it gives a purpose for the organization. But not only are we making money, but with the money we’re making, we’re able to, at our level, bring a contribution that we hope will change a portion of the world. They can go to my website and they could also, as you so nicely invite them, go on Amazon to get my book.

Jessica Kriegel: Thank you for tuning into Culture Leaders. I’m Dr. Jessica Kriegel, hoping you found inspiration in today’s story. If you enjoyed the episode, please leave a review and share your thoughts. And thanks for listening.

Narrator: To connect and learn more about today’s guest, visit the links section on this episode’s show notes. Please be sure to connect with Jessica and the show at JessicaKriegel.com. There, you’ll be able to see all the episodes and learn more about transforming culture at your organization. This episode is a Culture Partners production. Until next time, keep shaping a positive culture. Thanks for listening.

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