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Leadership Structure: The used to be vs. a new way

by Serafima Kiseleva, 

writing from Upsala Circus

Before coming to my hosting organisation I had a talk with Vera, the development manager of Upsala Circus where we were discussing my field of interest and our plan of actions for the duration of the program. And the schedule for the first week looked somehow like meetings with different product managers through the whole week and afterwards a meeting to check in and plan forward the things in which I could participate. 

My first day at Upsala Circus I had a real life meeting with Vera where she explained to me the history of Upsala, how it used to work and how it is changing and working now. I finally understood what is a product manager in Upsala circus and what is she/he doing there.

So basically Upsala–Circus was an NGO founded in Saint Petersburg in 2000 by two

enthusiasts: German social worker Astrid Schorn and Russian theatre director Larisa

Afanasieva. The aim of the new organization was the rehabilitation of socially disadvantaged children living on the streets.

After a long way of trial and error, in 15 years Upsala Circus had become an innovational social organization with staff of some 20 people, the only «circus for hooligans» in Russia boasting its own circus tent. 

And now the circus is changing its image from social to cultural. Today you won’t see or hear the tagline «circus for hooligans» , now circus is proudly «open for life and the living». The “new” circus brings together a professional troupe of circus artists, inclusive project and circus classes for kids from difficult backgrounds. 

There’s no main project or product and there’s no leader of Upsala Circus anymore; instead there are multiple equal projects coexisting and complementing each other, led by different managers.

As you can guess from what I’ve told you already, Upsala Circus has a flat structure which is great but difficult to create and maintain. And at this time Upsala is almost there but still in a work in progress state. And it is a very interesting time to be around. 

In different meetings with managers I saw different levels of understanding of what is circus and different levels of willingness to take responsibility. Sometimes, especially in the meetings where everybody gathered to discuss the success and troubles in their projects, I could see that some might wait for the approval of the “one and only leader” of the past. It is hard to go from one structure to another, to open the structure and make it flat. But in those moments of being not sure who is to take the decision what Upsala does is a vote and communication through disagreements. Itt works and it improves the connection between the team and it improves the work process.


The team has created a safe atmosphere where new members and old members are equal and free to share their opinions on how a project should continue.

Screenshot 2021-06-07 at 11.17.43.png

Illustration created for Upsala circus by design studio «Minin and Pojarskii» with Dasha Zorkina

Published on 13.06.2021

NHLP has been made possible with the support of Nordisk Kulturfond and Nordic culture Point, Nordic Council of Ministers, and Lund Municipality


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