What I learn from Dancing about Leadership

Not many people know I dance because I don't look like it. But I do, mainly couple dances like Salsa, Bachata and Kizomba. But I'm not here to write about my dance life (which is basically non-existance since 2020 due to Covid-19.

I'd like to touch on what I learn about being a leader and a follower because of dance.

In couple dance, the first thing taught in classes is about the Leader and the Follower. To most people watching a couple dance, you will think that it's just 2 person dancing in unison with no verbal communications between them. So how will the follower know what the leader wants to do?

You wouldn't believe it if I say that yes, there's communications involved, you just don't see or hear it. For each move and actions, the lead is always inviting the follower to perform and it is up to the follower to accept it and execute the move(s) or not.

Here are five key elements that I believe dancing with partner(s) can relate to leadership at work, and in other aspects of life.

1. The Invitation

Each dance starts off from a certain position and from there, a leader through hand positions and movements, will invite a follower to do a particular movement/steps. It's the choice of the follower to allow herself to be guided into those movements/steps.

To successfully lead people, it's important to establish rapport. Especially in work situations, it's often the case that people will simply be assigned to follow someone, regardless of whether they feel any natural affinity with that person. If you're assigned to lead a group of people, it's important to try to get close to them at a human level, in a friendly, relaxed way. Don't just barge in and start bossing people around; Instead, meet people on their own terms, sit down to talk with them, try to get a feel for who they are.

2. Moving together 

When we establish the beat of the music, as partners, we will move together across the dance floor. The leader moving to the direction he/she wants to go and the follower through the subtle touches and gestures, follows.

Few work activities match the physical closeness of dancing, but in many work situations, followers benefit from having a leader who is actually doing some of the work with them, and a leader benefits from being "on the floor" with their followers, working alongside them at least some of the time. The best leaders have enough understanding of their followers' tasks to help them do their best work, and this understanding often comes, in part, from doing some of the work themselves.

3. Be Receptive

One thing about couple based social dances, we changes partners between songs. And when you dance with different partners, you'd get to see the differences in each person's flavours and actions. How some lead or followers could easily move along with you and vice versa. Especially the experienced ladies I've danced with, even at my soft leads, they are able to move along and perform. While me being a male, tend to be more stubborn as a follower when another lead tries to lead me. Goes to show how different each person is, whether in dance or in work/life. 

In any leadership context, it's crucial that the leader pays attention to what their followers are doing and saying. It may be tempting, as a leader, to think that you're in charge and should be able to call the shots, but a smart leader knows the value of relying on their smart followers to help see the right way to take each step. 

For followers, it's all about your receptiveness towards a leader. Sometimes, we just have to move to the leader's tune even if we feel it's wrong. But as followers, we also have a duty to occasionally correct a leader. It's all about the subtle touches.

4. Create a path for your followers

In dance, it's the leader's job to make sure that you and your follower does not collide into other dancers, to learn how to make space for the dance to be enjoyable while making sure that you are not a hindrance to others. This is especially true when you are on a packed dance floor. It's important to know how much movement you can do and know when to hold back. I've seen from time to time, leaders trying to show off to a new follower that he knows his things by doing flairs and big spins, flinging arms and hair across the dance floor and smashing into other dancers. Not only will the dance not be enjoyable to the partner, other people will start to move away from you. 

In a corporate context, a leader often has a broader perspective than their followers do, because they may be aware of externalities before their followers are. A careful leader uses this knowledge to make sure that they can create a clear, safe path for their followers to move along, giving them the freedom to work to the best of their abilities within the given path.

5. Keep going

As new dancers, we will occasionally fall out of beat. We will occasionally step on other dancers as we find our footings. It's nothing to be ashamed of, apologise, reset and keep going. It is always OK to stop, get back into the beat and continue. Even though I've been dancing for quite a number of years, I still make mistakes especially after taking long breaks from dance. There's no need to make a fuss, look at the situation and keep going.

Flexible leaders understand that unexpected things happen all the time. They don't make a big fuss about problems that that can be easily corrected, and they have enough insight to understand that they, themselves, may be the origin of many problems! They help their followers adapt to the new situation and get right back to work.

The Take Away

Leadership is not about being bossy or ordering people around. It's about doing a task together with the people we lead. A leader's role is to provide a path and be the guide so that everyone can move forward together. 

As leaders, it is our role to make decision, suggest the best moves forward and freeing the followers to to just focus on their task with as few obstacles as possible. 

With proper leadership, a group can accomplish more than a single person. 

In Summary:

1. Invite the follower(s) to follow you and allow you to lead.

2. Move together with the follower, whether they are new or experienced.

3. Be receptive to changes and pay attention to what the followers need.

4. Create a path for your follower so they can safely navigate towards the goal.

5. Keep going, don't have to be ashamed if you encounter stumbling blocks. 

This list might not be a perfect one but that's how I see leadership in both dance and work/life. Hopefully, these insight from my dance life give you an idea about leadership and is useful as well. 

Michael Yip

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