"Improvisation takes a lot of preparation: What Samba Schools can teach us about leadership"

by Didier Marlier on Sunday December 5th, 2010

Jimmy is professor of Strategic Marketing in São-Paulo (USP and ESPM). He is a dedicated member of the “Vai-Vai” samba school and has decided to bring lessons from this world to the corporate world…

“Is samba serious or just leisure?” The “gringos” (non Brazilians) as I am, respectfully consider samba as a pleasant diversion, a nice and pagan way to celebrate Carnival… But the Brazilians unanimously claim: “It is VERY serious”…

Jimmy explains the incredible weight of the “Samba Business” in the Brazilian economy (2 Billion US$/year, 52 economical sectors involved, 35’000 jobs directly concerned in São-Paulo alone)… One starts to understand the importance but still not the seriousness of the whole.

Jimmy also comments the rigorous model on which the schools are assembled. It looks like a copy of our multinationals org. charts… Then he elaborates on the financial, time (a soon as Carnival is over, the best schools organize a large debrief, feedback, After Action Review and … plan for next year) and passion investment needed to run a school.

But three points really fascinate me in his story:

  • How to perform and excel in a highly chaotic and unforgiving environment? Jimmy explains that the samba school competition is the only event of such amplitude in the world which starts and finishes rigorously on time… and indeed, a school is heavily penalized for crossing the start or finish lines too early or too soon. A school is composed of 4’500 actors (plus heavy material) and all of them need to be rigorously synchronized to the second on this. Worse, Jimmy’s school lost their crown in 2009 for… 0.50 point (on a total of 270) since one of the 27 jurors (only one of them!) didn’t give them the maximum score of 10 but just a 9.75 because a plastic bag, blown by the wind had landed somewhere on one of their gigantic chariot and nobody had seen it nor consequently removed it… Who will still think after that, that Brazilians lack discipline and perfectionism? ONE plastic bag has cost Vai-Vai its title! The competitive environment of samba schools is harsh: there is just one winner, all others loose and a single detail (such as a participant once having forgotten to take his watch off whilst his school’s theme was Roman Empire!) kills. There are lots of strict rules and regulations with which the schools have to comply in order to be allowed to cross the start line… A highly regulated environment one would think… In the meantime, this controlled environment is highly risk taking: Because of their large size (imagine 4’500 people on stage), the people from the school only get together to perform collectively… on “D” Day, at the very moment they get on stage for the competition… All sub-teams rehearse time and time in their “silos” but the collective show has no such opportunity, it is a total improvisation. Schools have another complex challenge to solve: in order to finance themselves, they accept team members to join, who are not professionals (and for many of them not very gifted for dance, rhythm and parading). Those “generous sponsors” are also, was I told, not the most assiduous to the training practices (some flying from abroad just for the Carnival week…) How do you integrate, align and create the conditions to perform under such an unforgiving environment to a group made of religiously dedicated zealots, working a whole year on their passion and a bunch of uncommitted, fun seeking party goers that don’t even speak Portuguese? Just like our businesses, Samba schools are confronted to a highly competitive, regulated and cut throat competition whilst their environment grows more and more complex and chaotic by the day… But year after year, the Samba Schools present to their tens of millions of fans a constantly renewed, re-created and inventive show…
  • Connecting Leadership: Jimmy invited some musicians to play for a minute. To the non expert I was, their rhythm sounded just great and I thought Carnival had started… The Brazilians in the room looked disgusted and started to boo… So I did my best to look annoyed too, not really sure of why I should… It was obvious to the locals, that the band was not playing for each other, they all “were in it for themselves”, egocentric, disconnected and not generous… (Shame on me I hadn’t noticed the posture, body language and eyes lost in the horizon). Jimmy then invited them to play as a real samba band should: They looked at each other, smiled, were engaged with the audience, seemed to have a lot of fun and the harmony was far better (at least that is what the Brazilians said…). Let us go back to the costly “bag incident”… In their debrief of the “disaster” (finishing 2nd!!!), the leaders of the samba school did not fall into the trap of blaming the unlucky fellow that was stepping on the bag without noticing it. They asked themselves instead: “How come that none of the 4’499 other participants did not notice, did not take a stand and removed it themselves? Their conclusion was prompt: we lacked care, interest, curiosity and generosity towards each other. We failed to connect; we were too busy with our own piece and did not watch each others back… We deserved to loose”… Few of these guys have an engineering degree or a MBA from Harvard, Wharton, F.D.C., IMD or Insead but they are all intimately convinced that “Connected Leadership” is the way to ensure that the magic of leading 4’500 people through extraordinary performance happens!
  • How to create an engaged and intelligent organization? “Things only happen, if the people involved really want them to happen” claims Jimmy. And he is right. If S.O.P.s, rules, roles and procedures can make it happen in a simple environment[1], if working hard and elegantly on the intellectual agenda via the support of specialists and other consultants to create the clarity needed to move ahead, is a must in a complicated environment, there is no alternative to engagement through the creation of an “intelligent organization” under chaotic or complex conditions. Leaders we work with, increasingly recognize this and tend to “de-stratify” their old pyramidal “seniority is superiority” organizations. They seek to engage at three levels:
  1. Intellectual agenda, by co-creating clarity, meaning and ownership around the business model and strategy
  2. Behavioural agenda: they are astutely aware that they will be scrutinized, consciously and unconsciously by their people on their behaviours. Should these remind and reinforce the “old regime” (by distance to power, fear, mistrust, punishment, public execution, elitism) people will automatically conclude that the change is merely lip service and will respond by neutrality at best if not criticism or cynicism. If on the other hand (as I have for example spectacularly and recently seen with the “significant leaders” of Rhodia, a multinational specialty chemical group), the leaders spectacularly and symbolically change or adjust their style to ensure it totally matches and supports the strategic intent, then people will believe that change will happen
  3. Emotional agenda: Leaders need to create powerful “emotional markers” to start moving their people. This is usually done through symbols, stories, metaphors, gestures. Inviting Jimmy and his team for example, to create through the analogy of a samba school parade a very powerful collective experience and a new language is what convinced me to share it with you all.

Just landed from São-Paulo. On my way to Paris for an interesting week! Have an excellent one you all! Didier


[1] http://blog.enablersnetwork.com/2010/10/17/%E2%80%9Cconcrete-steps-to-lead-in-a-complex-environment-part-ii%E2%80%9D/

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