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May 12th, 2008

I’ve always fancied myself a dancer despite clear evidence as to why I get paid to think (and not dance) on my feet. Questionable rhythm, inconsistent gracefulness and no training whatsoever aside, something magical happens when I step on the dance floor. Dancing is one of the few things that instantaneously get me out of my constantly-thinking-head and into my body and spirit. Endorphins that elude me during running and other forms of exercise kick in, and suddenly everything is right with the world.

For years I’ve had this latent theory that dancing, particularly ballroom, could serve as a powerful metaphor in leadership development training. The theory never matured or was put into practice, at least not yet by me. Then I attended a presentation entitled “The Leaders Dance: Where Ballroom Dance and Leadership Meet” at a storytelling conference – finally my idea got validation! What was most remarkable was observing the impact of the dancing metaphor and its illustration on the workshop participants.

Presented by Yael Schy and Lynne Geingold, the seminar was a combination of theory, observation and movement and illustrated how ballroom partnerships can mirror both good and mediocre leadership in organizations. Here are some principles that were discussed through the “dos and don’t” of partner dancing:

  • Leaders know where they are going and they make it clear. If you’ve ever danced with a partner who isn’t confident in their abilities and movements or if you’ve worked for someone who meanders in the leadership of an organization, you might have been similarly frustrated. The best leaders (and dance partners) are clear, confident and communicative about what’s next.

  • Leaders guide without force and are gently assertive. Then there are leaders (and dance partners) that feel they can get people to move by yanking them along without consideration to others’ needs and talents. What creates flow in an organization (and a dance) is when the leader’s clear vision invites and inspires creativity, initiative and freedom of movement from the followers.

  • Leaders follow; followers lead. Both serve the dance. An astute observer remarked after watching the ballroom demonstration that there seems to be a responsibility on both the leader and the follower to create a structure that serves the dance, not the individual dancer. Same is true of good leaderships. Keeping egos in check and focusing on the goals of the organization is what creates a flow in the workplace.

  • Leaders recognize & utilize significance of everyone. When the leader guides his partner around the floor he must be mindful of other dancers, both to prevent injury and hostility. In organizations a manager can’t implement plans and strategies in isolation. If other departments and stakeholders are not fully onboard, the effort will never be fully successful in the long run.

Like in dance, excellent leadership is all about your relationship with your followers. Wherever your career may take you (on and off the dance floor) learning good leadership skills apply across the board regardless of the new industry, responsibilities and challenges you might undertake. And, based on the feedback from other participants at the workshop, I was delighted that these principles put everyone on the same page (or dance floor!)

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