Magic and Leadership: The Common Traits.

Nakul Shenoy writes about the deep connection between managers and magicians and ponders on some of the common traits that are integral to both their successes.

A couple of years back, I had the unique opportunity to present a keynote address with the India head of a global corporate, addressing the challenges faced by leaders of the company. After detailed discussions for a few weeks, we successfully collaborated and jointly presented a magical keynote, delivering a unique motivational message to the company’s senior managers: “WE ARE ALL MAGICIANS!”

In working towards this presentation and in the time since that well-received talk, I have been pondering on the interlinkages between the characteristics of a magician and a leader. In this article, I share some of my basic thoughts on the connection between these two roles and hope to elaborate on some of these and other traits further another day.

Magic is all about creativity and making the impossible possible. Many a time, it is about using one law of science in a creative way to seemingly disprove another. For example, an optical illusion may be used to show that a solid pencil has suddenly turned soft and rubbery. A similar treatment is utilised to levitate a person in the air, in an effort to break the law of gravity as we know it. Handling unexpected challenges and creatively addressing problems with out-of-the-box solutions are second nature for good leaders.

There is a huge team of thinkers, inventors, script writers, directors, artistes, and the like, working with the magician here, but it is the magician who has the task of bringing it all together in a seamless and natural way. The success of the show is directly proportional to how well a job the performer does to bring it all together.

We all know of David Copperfield or even our own PC Sorcar. They are best known as illusionists. These magicians are the face of their shows — with hundreds of people working together, many in the background, to help achieve the wonderful illusions that we see on stage. Their magic team is what makes most of the amazing effects possible. The team toils and works to precision, making things perfect and appear effortless on stage.

In some acts, the magician just faces the audience and only needs do the magical moves & gestures for the magic to happen. Pretty much like managers and leaders are the public face of their teams for good and bad, and only as good as their teams make them to be.

Magicians are known to be innovative and courageous. Some magicians have done so much more with these important leadership traits. Harry Houdini took on so many death-defying challenges that the act of escape itself became synonymous with his name. Even today, when somebody does an impossible escape, we say ‘he did a Houdini’.

Magicians also have to be exceptionally creative, to constantly stay ahead of the curve and relevant. Houdini himself did everything from card magic to escapes, from movies to being one of the first to fly an airplane — all in his quest of staying special. Performers like Derek DelGaudio are today pushing the bar consistently and creating new unbelievable experiences for their audiences. 

Being humble and likeable is an important trait for leaders, but all the more for the magician. Much as the showman needs to flaunt his traits, he needs to portray humility — for stepping on toes has not helped anybody. The secrets of magic are protected by the community and when a magician Val Valentino started sharing these on TV, hidden behind a mask, he was quickly found and boycotted from the magic fraternity. His career more or less died, despite the show that aired internationally on TV.

In today’s dog-eat-dog world, leaders need immense perseverance in excelling at what they do. What better parallel than David Blaine — a modern day miracle man and the greatest endurance artist of our time. Blaine stood on a pillar for eight days, stayed buried in the ground for a week, was entombed in ice for three days, and most recently performed a death-defying bullet catch. The character of risk taking is best embodied by Houdini and Blaine.

Speaking of taking risks and catching bullets, I am reminded of the great vaudevillian magician Chung Ling Soo, who is most known today for having died on stage when something went horribly wrong with his world-famous bullet catch act. In reality, this Chinese magician with an elaborate oriental show was an Englishman by name William Robinson.

In his stage show, Chung Ling Soo produced a large fish bowl, which appeared seemingly out of nowhere. To be able to perform this miracle, he needed to suspend that large heavy fish bowl between his knees, which made walking on stage rather difficult. To disguise this secret of one of his signature effects, Chung Ling Soo went around his normal daily life walking like a cripple. This wonderful story even inspired a scene in the movie The Prestige.

On a similar note, leaders strive to inspire their teams and people in general. They too try to stay in character — representing good morals — and instil confidence among their colleagues and peers. Magicians also need to be likeable and effective communicators, think differently, and deliver the impossible. Not too different from effective leaders!

Juan Tamariz has an interesting book for magicians called ‘Five Points in Magic’ where he shares how each of the five sense play a role in making and perceiving magic. A good magician is not only keeping a close eye on all that he is doing, but also observing and controlling his audiences to ensure they enjoy the magic to the best possibility.

The best example for this is Derren Brown, who — being a magician, mentalist and hypnotist — is a master at communication. He can read minds, predict what people are going to do, and even control them to do exactly what he wants them to do. Derren is a master at winning against the odds, always. Not to forget the hearts. Leaders too need to consistently win against the odds and leverage their learning from various disciplines and manage their multi-layered relations with the team, clients and higher-ups.

In summary, the traits that make or break a magician are the same ones that make a leader / manager successful. I like to see these characteristics as the 6Cs, 3Ps and an H, being:

  • Character
  • Courage
  • Connect (Awareness)
  • Creativity
  • Cooperation (Teamwork)
  • Communication
  • Passion
  • Purpose (Direction)
  • Perseverance
  • Humility

At their work, leaders and managers are expected to pull rabbits out of their hats all the time, delivering quality output in impossible timelines. And the challenges and constraints they encounter in their jobs are no less than performing the most complicated tight-rope walks. They are the real-life magicians.

Note: First published by Nakul Shenoy at on August 23, 2017.