What Dancing Can Teach You About Leadership By Michael Masterson
"You do not lead by hitting people over the head - that's assault, not leadership."
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
The three most important lessons in leadership I ever learned, I learned on the dance floor.
About a dozen years ago, K and I decided to do something about our fear of dancing at social events. We hired a ballroom dance instructor to teach us the basics: one slow dance, one fast dance, and a rudimentary salsa.
It was a simple goal, and we made quick progress when we were learning the footwork side by side. But when our instructor had us join hands and dance together, all hell broke loose. K had her ideas about how we should move and I had mine.
Within minutes, the dance we were attempting to do would turn into a Greco-Roman wrestling match - she pulling me one way, while I was pushing her another way. Our instructor tried to solve the problem by asking us to dance more smoothly. When that didn't work, he sat us down and gave us a little lecture.
"Dancing," he said, "is a partnership. But it's a partnership where the man leads and the woman follows."
He looked at K. She was glaring at him.
"I know you don't like to follow," he said. "But if you want to dance well together, you are going to have to do it."
You can imagine the look on my face when he said that. As hard as I tried, I could not suppress a huge grin. Yes, in ballroom dancing - even these days - the man leads. This is a flagrant contradiction - not only of the way a good marriage operates, but also of common sense. After all, most women can dance a little. And most men look (and feel) ridiculous the moment they start.
No matter. Tradition rules on the dance floor. You may move more like Steve Martin in The Jerk
than Fred Astaire, but if you are the man, then you are in charge of the dance.
"It usually comes as a shock," our instructor explained. "But if you stick with it, it can work."
It was quite a trial for K. She almost broke down several times during the following 30 minutes. "I don't think I can do this!" she said in a voice that sent chills down my spine.
"Learning to follow," our instructor said sympathetically, "is not easy. It's a skill. And for some people, a difficult one. For one thing, you have to do the same thing your partner is doing, except backward. Just as important, you have to follow his lead even if it seems as if he's going the wrong way."
That barely satisfied K. "Why can't he learn to dance backward?" she said.
Our instructor smiled at her. "Do you really think he is capable of that?"
"I guess not," she said.
"And if he learns to lead well," he promised, "you may actually enjoy the feeling of being led."
"Yeah, right," K said. But she did her best to follow. It wasn't long before our instructor stopped us again and gave us lecture number two.
"Being a leader doesn't mean pushing your partner around," he said to me sternly. "Leading is all about sensitivity. And you, Mr. Masterson, have so far showed very little of that."
Now it was K's turn to smile.
I defended myself as glibly as I could. "Sensitivity," I said, "is one quality I have always eschewed. I once thought I should write a book for men like me titled 30 Days to Complete Insensitivity."
Our instructor was not amused. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and shook his head slowly, looking at me the way you might look at your dog after he has just peed on the carpet.
"It is impossible to lead well if you are shoving your partner around. You will look like a thug and she will not enjoy dancing with you at all. To lead well, you need to know exactly where your partner is at every moment. You have to know what foot her weight is balanced on without looking. You have to know her pacing, her strengths, and her weaknesses. And you have to take all that into consideration every time you move with her in your arms."
"Can you put that in writing and have him sign it in blood?" K wanted to know.
"It will take some time," our instructor replied. "But I believe we can turn this ox into a leader if he is just willing to follow three rules."
I was, I have to admit, interested to hear what those three rules were. They turned out to be very simple and yet very powerful. They made me a better dancer immediately. But more important, they later helped me understand how to be a better business leader too.
Here are the three rules: 1. Know what you are going to do before you do it. On the dance floor:
"One big mistake men often make on the dance floor," our instructor said, "is that they make split-second decisions about which move they want to do next. That gives them no time at all to signal their partner, so they compensate by pushing and shoving. Pushing and shoving is the opposite of good dancing. And it's easy to avoid. Just know what your next step is going to be, and give your partner the signal at the right time so she can follow you gracefully."
To demonstrate how bad I was at leading, our instructor videotaped me run through a salsa by myself, pretending to have K in my arms. He played it back for us and pointed out how jerky my movements were. "You look that way because you are waiting too long before you decide what your next step is going to be. If you look awkward dancing alone, you can imagine how awkward you will look as a couple, when she is trying to follow your last-minute movements." In business:
Having a long-term vision of what your business should become is like knowing what type of dance you want to do. But being a good leader requires more of you than that. It demands that you also have good ideas about the medium- and short-term tasks that are required to achieve that vision. And it means you have to communicate those ideas to your partners - the employees, vendors, and suppliers who are working closely with you to achieve your long-term vision. 2. Signal your intentions distinctly. On the dance floor:
To develop my first leading skill, I practiced our three dances by myself until I had a complete repertoire of moves I could do without making any quick or sudden changes. Then K and I resumed dancing together.
It was much better, but there were still problems. Every once in a while, K hesitated or stumbled. I thought, "Gee, I must be learning faster than she is." Our instructor had another interpretation. "You are not leading well," he told me.
"But I know what I am going to do," I protested. "And I'm giving her the signals."
"I don't think so," he said. And then he had me dance with him.
Our instructor was a big, burly sort of guy. Were I inclined to dance with men, he would not be first on my dance card. Still, I did the best I could and tried to lead him flawlessly.
After just a few turns, he stopped me and said, "Just as I expected. You are not giving your signals strongly enough."
"Huh?" I said. "I thought you didn't want me to use force."
"Right," he replied. "And the way to avoid using force is to give strong, clear signals."
He demonstrated by having me dance with him leading. I could feel my testosterone plunging as I dutifully obliged, K grinning happily as she watched.
What I noticed was that our instructor's signals - various sorts of touches on the back - were imperceptible to anyone watching but were very obvious to me because they were, as he had said, strong and clear.
"You can't follow well if your leader is giving you wishy-washy signals," he explained. "The stronger your signals are, the easier it is to follow you. And the easier it is for your partner to follow you, the better you'll look and the better she'll like dancing with you." In business:
Knowing what you want from your partners (again, your employees and vendors and suppliers) is not enough. You have to let them know what you want them to do by communicating it to them very clearly. And you have to give them enough time to do it. 3. Lead to demonstrate your partner's strengths. On the dance floor:
For the next several lessons, I worked diligently at making my signals clearer and more distinct. And sure enough, K's occasional missteps, which I had been attributing to her, all but ceased. But there was still one more lesson I had to learn before our instructor would deem me a "good leader."
"You have come a long way," he told me one day after we had performed our three dances reasonably gracefully. "But there is one more thing that you need to do - and this will take you to the next level."
We were eager to find out what that one thing was. I sort of expected it to be some sort of fancy footwork or something about body posture or timing.
"I can think of three turns that K does especially well," he told me. "But I don't see her making those turns very often. What I see most of are the moves you like to do, Mr. Masterson." And then he just stared at me.
I felt, once again, like a dog that had peed on the carpet. I tucked my metaphorical tail between my legs and asked, "But isn't it natural to do what you like to do?"
"It's natural, but it's wrong," he said. "In dancing, the purpose of the man is to lead - but the purpose of the dance itself is to showcase the woman."
"Think of Fred Astaire," he said, "one of the greatest dancers that ever lived. None of the women he danced with had his level of mastery. But he always made them look better than they were and put them at the center of the dance when they were performing the moves they did best."
When he explained it that way, this rule made perfect sense. And by keeping it in mind, I was able to improve my dancing almost immediately. In business:
If you want all your business efforts to be successful, you need to get all your partners (once again, your employees and vendors and suppliers) working at their peak levels. And you want to take full advantage of all the things they do especially well - which means giving them the opportunity to do those things (especially when they're better at them than you are).
All three lessons are critically important - in fact, necessary - for good leadership. But this third one is the most important for business leaders whose businesses are beyond the first stage of development - in other words, when continued business growth demands the contributions of many talented people, not just the energy and genius of the entrepreneur who started things going. (I explain the various stages of business development in detail in my book Ready, Fire, Aim
Being a good leader means you have to have a vision. It means you have to have a plan too, so your partners know what their next steps should be. It means communicating those next steps with precision and in time for them to respond. And it means giving your partners the space they need to do their own thing.
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