Leadership: What We Can Learn from the Best Dance Instructors

by  Mary C. Schaefer  |  Leadership Development

“A leader is most effective when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, [the people] will feel they did it themselves.”  ~Lao Tzu

I took a salsa dancing class a few years ago.  At one point I had the good fortune to be paired with the instructor.

I was a little uncomfortable.  The way he was holding me, there was no other place to put my left hand, but on a spot on his shoulder.It was not that the spot was inappropriate, but it was just not where I would have put my hand.  I kept worrying that I had my hand in the wrong spot, and that I was embarrassing myself.

A few minutes later, as he turned to the rest of the class, he showed the women that this is the spot they should rest their left hand – right where my hand was.

But I hadn’t known that.  How did I end up in the right position?

As you probably know, in dancing they say the man “leads.”  And I know I used the word “held” above, but it doesn’t seem precise enough.  It was more like he created a light frame for me to meet him at.  I never had the sensation of being pushed, moved, or forced in any way.

This made me think about Peter Block, an author and consultant. His work is about empowerment, stewardship, accountability, and community. I was struck by a sentence I read in his bio at a conference.

“Block is the author of several best-selling books… these books focus on ways to create workplaces and communities that work for all… Block discusses bringing change into the world through consent and connectedness rather than through mandate and force.”

I like those words, “consent and connectedness.”  I would say the way my dance instructor led me was almost a sort of consent, connectedness or magnetism.   It was almost like the way he held himself, led me to effortlessly do my part — to follow him well.

As I continued to think about this, other questions popped up.  (I may have to interview this guy.)

  • Can you be a great dancer without be a great “lead-er??
  • Do you “lead” different people differently?
  • How does it feel differently when the interaction shifts from “leading” to partnership?

All good questions, for him, and maybe you too.  And for you I want to add one more:  How can you hold yourself today, so that your constituents effortlessly follow you?

Photo credit: Microsoft Clipart

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About The Author

Articles By mary-schaefer
Speaker, coach and trainer Mary Schaefer’s expertise is in creating work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. She is a former HR manager. Find out more about how Mary helps managers empower themselves to make the most of their human resources with this special collection of articles selected for LCG readers:  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Tristan Bishop  |  04 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Hi Mary,

I SO enjoyed your post! As a long-time singer, I once gave both Ballroom and Modern the old college try, hoping Broadway could be in my future (It was NOT – “two left feet” – still sing though)

The metaphor between ballroom dance and business leadership is sublime! Both dancers are equally important, but their roles differ dramatically. They each must, pardon the expression, “fall in step” for the partnership to soar. I sometimes wonder if it isn’t MORE difficult to be the follower! My favorite quote on the matter comes from Faith Whittlesey, who said:

“Remember, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.”

Today, I’ll take your advice and make it as easy as possible to be “followable!” I’m going to do that by peppering my speech with hope, and by choosing my words … gingerly.

Mary C Schaefer  |  04 Nov 2010  |  Reply

And Tristan, I so appreciated your coming from someone with experience in performing. What you shared added to my appreciation of “leading” and being “followable.” :) Mary

William Powell  |  04 Nov 2010  |  Reply

I think this is one of my favorite blog posts for some time. We spend so much time and focus on leading and the like that the idea of simply being followable is such an important part of leadership. I think everyone has had at least one “leader” in their life who was a chore to follow them. Thank you for the great reminder Mary!

Mary C Schaefer  |  04 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Thanks William. I loved this, “I think everyone has had at least one “leader” in their life who was a chore to follow them.” Isn’t that the truth? Reminds me of yet another favorite quotation:

“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” – George Eliot

Mary C Schaefer  |  04 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Thank you Tristan and William, both. I had been meaning to write this post for years, and apparently now its time has come. I love that both of you used the word, “followable.” That is a different way of looking at leadership, isn’t it?

Tristan Bishop  |  04 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Completely! I think of times I’ve been in a caravan of cars heading somewhere, the beach, etc. Some lead drivers are more “followable” than others. For example, if the lead driver guns the ignition to make a yellow light, everyone gets seperated. There is a metaphor in THERE somewhere, too! :) I remember thinking, if I was the lead car, I’d try to be more “followable.”

Mary C Schaefer  |  04 Nov 2010  | 

I think you have your next blog post too. :)

Deborah Costello  |  04 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Much of my focus in the past year has been on working toward leading myself, essentially trying to become someone worth following. It is a powerful lesson that has helped me tremendously in all that I do. Thank you for the reminder. =]

Mary C Schaefer  |  05 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Thanks so much, Deborah, for commenting.


Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach  |  04 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Hi Mary,
Loved your post because (a) I am a Latin/Ballroom dancer by serious hobby and more importantly (b) the dynamic of lead/follow in dance is one of the very best analogies for modern day leadership. In addition to your questions, I add that the follower in dance is (and must be) very strong in their own body.

It is a myth that the leader actually moves the dancer around the floor. The leader only sets the direction and the follower must be ready and react with the slightest touch of direction.

I could go on and on yet I will spare you all my huge enthusiasm for dance. Suffice it to say I have learned as much about leader/follower as I have about dance — in my lessons.

I will RT your post on Twitter for sure!

Mary C Schaefer  |  05 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Hi Kate. It is so much fun to hear from people who are more experienced with dance than I am. This is great:

“It is a myth that the leader actually moves the dancer around the floor. The leader only sets the direction and the follower must be ready and react with the slightest touch of direction.”

Thanks for commenting! Mary

John Wargowsky  |  04 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Loved the post Mary. I have called square dances since 1981. A caller definitely has to build trust with the dancers so they are willing to follow directions. Beginning dancers are often very worried they will embarrass themselves if they make a mistake, so they need to feel comfortable to risk. Within each square, people also need to trust each other as they dance. This creates multiple layers of leading and following.

While the basic dances have been the same over nearly 30 years. Each dancer and group of dancers create unique experiences. The lady that most influenced how I call coached me to be the dance facilitator that created the right environment, allowing people to enjoy the experience and each other. It is so rewarding to see people successfully square dancing and smiling.

Mary C Schaefer  |  05 Nov 2010  |  Reply

Hi John. I’m struck by how many opportunities we have to lead in our everyday lives.

Your description of your experience as a square dance caller is informative and fun! Wow, this is a great parallel you’ve drawn to leading. I think creating that safe environment for risk is SO important, and something that is often overlooked. Thank you for bringing it up.


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