Ballet’s grace leads to new thinking at Chicago Booth business school
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John Michael Schert looks like any other soberly dressed academic when he arrives at the London campus of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Mr Schert would be equally at home in ballet tights, on a theatre stage, performing to an audience of hundreds of people.
Before joining the University of Chicago Booth two years ago as its inaugural visiting artist, Mr Schert was a full-time dancer.
He studied at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre in New York, and has performed in venues from Athens to Los Angeles.
Although many business schools have visiting artists, the expectations of Mr Schert are different to his counterparts.
Elsewhere, a visiting artist might produce work for exhibitions or performances on the business school’s campus.
Instead, Mr Schert is expected to teach, explaining to MBA and other masters students how creative process can be translated into innovative thinking for the corporate world.
“We in the arts world have done ourselves a disservice by making our performance the focus of attention,” he says. “There is as much to be learnt from the process that we use to create that performance.”
Mr Schert’s lectures sometimes involve bringing in another professional dancer to trip the light fantastic, while he confines himself to talking about the challenges he has faced and how these may resonate with people in business.
The overall point of the visiting artist position, Mr Schert says, is to explain that the creative process in performing arts is not that different to what happens in the corporate environment.
An example of this would be to show that, like people in business, dancers experience failure, and the way that they deal with it can be instructive. “Falling is not the worst thing that happens on stage,” he says. “If you fall you get up. It is how you get up that counts.”
Some fellow dancers have struggled to understand why Mr Schert would want to move into business education, he admits.
“There are so many silos in this world,” he says. “I see myself as a translator, not living in either the world of dance or work.”
Before joining Chicago Booth, Mr Schert was executive director of the Trey McIntyre Project, a dance group in Boise, Idaho, which he had co-founded nine years earlier.
It was during a tour with this company that he was introduced to Harry Davis, Chicago Booth’s professor of creative management, and the pair immediately hit it off.
Prof Davis notes that he had been using concepts and tools from theatre and music for his courses on strategy and creativity for the best part of 20 years. Hiring Mr Schert was a “no brainer”, he says.
“It was serendipity,” says Mr Schert. He had been considering leaving the Trey McIntyre Project for a while, having spent almost a decade running the group.
“As you move through life [you] gravitate to different mentors, different artistic leaders,” Mr Schert says. “When I met Harry I knew this was the person I must study under.”
Prof Davis would like to expand his roster of visiting artists at Chicago Booth to five, claiming that they can help bring business concepts to life in a way he and other academic staff cannot.
He likens the teaching techniques of Mr Schert to those of a surgeon instructing students by letting them watch the performance of an operation.
“When we talk about process we use a flow chart, but when you do that you can miss the essence of the process,” he says.
“To talk about a process is nowhere near as helpful as watching someone perform it.”
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