Leadership Lessons from World’s Youngest Human Cannonball


Elliana Grace Hentoff-Killian was the world’s youngest female human cannonball. At twenty-one years old, she performed with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show “Built to Amaze.” She shot out of a canon at 65 miles an hour, that’s a g-force of 7, similar to what astronauts experience reentering earth’s atmosphere.

Back in 2013, NPR’s Talk of the Nation profiled Elliana who described what being part of a circus is like. I fell a little in love with her and listened as other circus performers, past and present, called to weigh in. They explained that to thrive in circus culture you must:

  • Trust others with your life. 

  • Embrace global diversity – human and animal. 

  • Keep yourself mentally and physically well. 

  • Remember, you’re in the greatest show on earth.

Imagine if all work cultures were all like that! Imagine what we’d accomplish and the problems we’d solve!

Cannonball Insights We Can (& Should) All Use

Elliana shared three amazing insights about her unusual work that I believe we can apply to leadership.  Take the leap with me. Let’s emulate the world’s youngest female human cannonball.

1. When Done Right…Fun & Fabulous

“(NPR interviewer) HEADLEE: But I also read that when you first got shot out of a cannon, you said, I’m not doing that again.

HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Yeah. The first practice, I was convinced that I never wanted to do it again, ever. It was scary.


HENTOFF-KILLIAN: Well, if you do it wrong, it hurts. If you do it right, it’s fabulous and fun.”

How often do you hold yourself back from being bold, from doing something scary? Shooting into the air at 65 miles an hour may not be for you, but think about risks you’ve been afraid to take. Are they real or perceived? How do you know for sure? Have you tried it at least twice?

Talk with others. Put a toe in the water and try it once, then again. Test it in small ways and then grow your practice, yourself from there. FLY!

You might just find that thing you’ve been afraid of is really fun and fabulous once you’ve practiced enough to do it right.

2. Show Others You Love It

Elliana authentically loves what she does. I mean, she’d have to, right? Human cannonballs have died on the job!

While shooting out of a cannon may not be for all of us, her daily internal mantra definitely is:  Show others you love it.


Imagine entering every meeting, every conversation, every task showing others that you love it.

How well do you show you love your work every day?

If you don’t love it, what can you change? If you change things and still don’t love it, what more can you change? Remember Maya Angelou’s advice, “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

You’ll be amazed what happens when turn up the dial a little bit and show others you love “it,” that thing you do every day called work. I’m confident that others will be drawn to you and who knows, when you show love others may just love you too.

3. “Present Yourself” is the Give-Back Gift

When asked what the life lesson in being a circus performer is, Elliana’s response gave me chills. What if we thought of leading like this?

“Well, for me, it’s always been that you always have to present yourself. And in the circus, you’re there for everybody else’s enjoyment. And, you know, I want to give them the best show that I can, whether it’d be the first show or the last one on a three-show Saturday. So for me, it’s to give back and to, you know, show others that here’s some enjoyment from me, I guess, is how I would put it.”

Wow, what if we all focused on giving the best “give-back” show every day? Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean an inauthentic ‘show,’ a fake, put-on veneer of ourselves. I mean, presenting our best selves to the world in a way that gives to others.

Your gifts, your knowledge, your skills–everything that makes you uniquely you–that’s the show, isn’t it? Present yourself!

Remember, you’re part of the greatest show on earth — humanity!


(Photos and transcript excerpt via NPR.org: Catching Up With The World’s Youngest Female Cannonball.)

P.S. This is an updated encore post. Its one of my favorite pieces from 2013 that I’m sharing again. Bravo Elliana! You remain an #inspiration!

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