It was the week before Christmas 2018 when employees of GE Healthcare’s Anesthesia and Respiratory Care business received an end-of-the-year video from their boss, unit leader Matti Lehtonen. In the video, Lehtonen thanked the team for their hard work and delivered his best holiday wishes while juggling three neon orange clubs on a frozen, snow-covered bay near his home in Helsinki, Finland.
Few, if any, were surprised by Lehtonen’s high jinx. Over the years, he has taught dozens of his team members how to juggle. “In business, we often talk about having many balls in the air and avoiding dropping the ball and all that,” he says. “But once you start juggling, you realize there are so many different juggling patterns; there’s whole mathematics behind it, which is very interesting. It’s all about creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.”
Lehtonen is an unlikely juggler. Legally blind in one eye after a childhood accident, he picked it up in his 30s as a dare after seeing a friend juggle. “I said, ‘Wow, that looks really difficult,’ ” he recalls. “So I got myself some balls and I learned.”
It was a unique journey, like many things about Lehtonen. “Because of my eye, I cannot make last-second corrections on the right side,” he says. “I can’t see my hand and I can’t see the ball and you really have to anticipate where it’s going to fall. It takes me longer to learn things, but once I do, the gratification is even greater. By then, you can juggle with your eyes closed.”
After years of juggling, Lehtonen says it feels to him like meditation. “It occupies 100% of your brain,” he says. “Your mind can’t wander. You can’t think about what happened before or what’s going to happen next. You are in this moment. It’s physically demanding and also relaxing at the same time.”
Today Lehtonen even invents his own juggling patterns. He compares it to writing a piece of music and says jugglers have personal notations to describe the moves they need to make.
Lehtonen’s most recent juggling class took place this week at the unit’s annual global leadership meeting in Budapest, Hungary. He says juggling is a creative way for executives who run one of the world’s largest anesthesia and ventilator businesses to acquire new skills and have fun doing it. “I want the team to feel comfortable doing something that’s out of the ordinary, that doesn’t look entirely executive type,” Lehtonen says. “One colleague in China told me that this was the best thing they’ve ever brought from work to home. For me, that was very gratifying.”
Monica Morrison, who runs the GE anesthesia regulatory affairs team from Washington, D.C., became a convert a few years ago, after attending Lehtonen’s juggling workshop. “Just like a business, it’s a similar blend of science and art — and it’s also challenging,” she says about juggling’s appeal. “It’s not something you are going to nail down the first time you try it.”
A typical juggling workshop takes about an hour. The team gathers in a room where Lehtonen shows them the basics. Beginners start throwing just one ball, but usually quickly progress to more. “Matti is an intellectual but he is also such a fun, creative, and inspiring individual,” Morrison says. “If you are with him for 20 minutes, he can teach you to juggle the three balls.”
As a result, the occasional breakout sessions during Lehtonen’s meetings can resemble a circus, and that’s the point. “In the office, everybody is battling for resources, dealing with a host of issues like supplier quality, product development calls, and all that,” he says. “That’s taxing.” Lehtonen says you need to have a vision on where you’re going: “You know what you need to learn, but you also know that you are not going to learn it overnight. If you want to learn to juggle five balls, you start with one.”
Lehtonen’s passion now extends to his summers where you can spot him riding around his leafy Helsinki neighborhood on a penny-farthing — a classic bicycle with a very large front wheel and a small rear wheel — and juggling along the way. “It seems difficult, but once you learn it, you get an immense sense of success,” he says.
Inspired by Lehtonen, Morrison bought a unicycle, too. “It’s a very rewarding feeling when you can finally go for 20, 30 seconds unicycling,” she says. “But it does take the acceptance that you are going to fall a lot in the beginning. It’s one of those things in life that is learnable, but you have to be willing to fail over and over again and just slowly hone in on the right balance.”
She says she applies the experience every day at work. “We use our brains so much, sitting in front of a computer. Being able to use your body physically and your brain and tie it together, I think it’s very fun. It’s also just fun to be in a situation with your coworkers where you are willing to fail in front of them. Maybe you are going to look a little silly but I think it’s an important step in trusting each other.”
Lehtonen says he got his inspiration for teaching juggling from passing balls and clubs with strangers at juggling conventions he attends every summer with his family. “Once you start passing objects between you and some other people in fairly complex patterns, it becomes really interesting,” he says. “It’s an interaction and you need to anticipate what the person is going to do and you need to make sure they know what you are doing.”
Despite all the unpredictability and movement, Lehtonen says juggling adds balance to his life. “That’s how I keep myself sane,” he says.