Empowered Followership Part 3

This week is the third installment of the 3-part series on Empowered Followership, in which I replace outdated stereotypes of this role with inspiring characteristics that we want to see and embody ourselves on the dance floor and in the work place. Thank you to those who have been reading along for the past couple of weeks! If you missed the earlier posts, please check them out here and here, as well as other related posts listed in the right side column.

Stereotype #3: Passivity
Empowered Quality #3: Readiness

Photo by Marty Katz 2006

Photo by Marty Katz 2006

The idea that the follower role is a passive one is perhaps the most ironic stereotype of all. Think about this: to follow a person down a path, to maintain a “safe following distance” behind another car, to follow an author or media outlet, even to follow a Facebook group, requires an act of deliberate, intentional participation. It implies movement and engagement, choice even. And as a tango dancer, the experience of followership for me is a highly active, kinetic state. Even the Spanish words we inherit for tango make the character of the following role quite clear:

hacer: to do [a movement]
tomar, to take [a step]
responder: to respond [to a signal]

Unfortunately, the term “follow” still carries a negative connotation in everyday English, as if a person taking this role had no power, no animating force of his or her own. Obviously, this is not true, but to fully analyze the misunderstanding would take us down a deep rabbit hole of cultural studies, and I shall not venture that way now. Instead, I will lay out as best I can what happens when we adopt Passivity as a way of being on and off the dance floor, and also what happens when, instead, we choose to embody Readiness.

In dance, a passive posture makes us heavy. There is a lag in our response time, creating excess pressure and resistance against our partner. Thinking that the other will move us, motivate us, or somehow infuse us with energy, we wait, focused not on moving ourselves but on physically being moved. Owing to the laws of physics, it’s not actually possible for someone else to move us without a great deal of force, and force is not the goal of a graceful creative relationship.

Seeing ourselves as passive also makes us less aware of the other person and of the environment in general. With less awareness, our steps are uninformed by important variables such as where exactly the partner’s center of gravity rests in relation to us, or whether the dance floor is crowded, orderly, or chaotic. Without a keen grasp of these variables, we become less able to step precisely, less invested in any given moment as an expressive opportunity, instead hoping the leader will somehow make us feel or look elegant or beautiful.

In Readiness, however, we take responsibility for our part in the dance. We’re light, responding fluidly to the leader’s signal. In command of our own weight, we note subtle changes in our partner and in the environment and shift our balance or position accordingly. There is a sense of possibility in our embrace, in our stride. Strength and softness harmonize in our body. We maintain our connection to the musical thread from beginning to end, filling each step and each pause with our own unique quality of movement.

Passivity in the work place might manifest as unwillingness to contribute one’s own ideas, lack of personal investment or curiosity in a project, or reluctance to engage with a challenging problem. When following in this way, employees may do the bare minimum required, or what they think is required, by the leader. In meetings, they may not express interest in how their work fits into a larger initiative or industry trend, or appreciate the complexity of factors contributing to the company's success, making it difficult for them to communicate and strategize with others about longer term goals or plans.

On the other hand, a follower standing in readiness enters the meeting well-prepared for these conversations. He is up to date on the latest developments in his field. He has done the research on the potential client. He is ready to contribute and confident in his ability to do so, and so when a question comes, he responds with meaningful and relevant ideas. Please note that ready is not the same as obedient. In obedience, the follower acts without personal reflection. He is not so much contributing something of himself but rather fulfilling an established task that is typically a well-trodden path. (See Part I of this series in which we replace Obedience with Support)

In readiness, however, we don’t know what his response will be to any given circumstance. He himself may not know. What he does know is that his preparation makes it likely that he will add something to the conversation that would not be there without him. He is not just anyone in that meeting, he is an informed and insightful voice, often able to gently point out gaps in the logic of his leader, or to articulate a perspective not yet on the table.

In readiness, we know that success of any interaction with a leader depends on us showing up with our A-game. We know that the project will only be as good as what we are prepared to offer, and that abdicating all responsibility to the leader is not only a missed opportunity for us; it puts a drag on the entire process.

Good dance? Successful project bid? The leader gets all the credit. Bad dance? Rejected proposal? The leader gets all the blame. Where are we followers in this equation? When we follow, we are not blank slates on which the leader imposes his or her opus or train wreck. We are not merely instruments of someone else’s fully-formed idea. We are active participants in the dance or in the company, and we share the responsibility for what happens there.

Next up, look for a series on Empowered Leadership Qualities, coming soon. If you'd like to be notified when new articles are posted, please sign up for my mailing list in the right hand column.

Author’s Note: I want to add here that I'm aware that, ultimately, words are arbitrary, and that what I'm describing as "ready" may well be someone else's understanding of "passive." Still, words are often the best indicators we have of the felt experience we’re trying to cultivate. The words I’ve chosen in this series are ones that I hope might help to flip the empowered/disempowered coin, and nudge you toward a more satisfying and expressive experience in whatever sphere you find yourself following.

Empowered Followership Part 2

This week I’m exploring the second of three empowered followership qualities, qualities that I hope can help replace outdated stereotypes of this role as we experience it both on the dance floor and in professional work environments.

Stereotype #2: Perfection
Empowered Quality #2: Excellence

Though one need not take the following role to fall under this particular spell, perfectionism and followership seem to have a sticky relationship. When we’re following on the dance floor, we are prone to apologize when things don’t go as planned. We assume it’s our fault, and hold ourselves to the impossible standard of “getting it right” every time, with “right” being “what the leader wants.” This stance is problematic in itself (see last week’s post on Obedience vs Support, and stay tuned for a series of posts on Empowered Leadership in August).

Photo by John Healey 2007

Photo by John Healey 2007

The crux of the problem with perfection is the right/wrong thinking it implies. It’s crucial to understand that the endless loop of perfectionism is not about being good at anything. It’s actually about judging your dancing, your work, or yourself as not good enough. When you’re in this loop, dismissive thoughts dominate your awareness (not fast enough, not smooth enough, not clever enough, etc.) and little creativity is available for your dancing or your work.

The pursuit of personal excellence, on the other hand, is curious and exploratory. Rather than trying to do things perfectly, we engage our skills and expertise to respond to a leader’s request with purpose and commitment. No two dancers move in the same way, and no two designers create in the same way. Acknowledging this personal aspect of dancing, or of our work, is key to the pursuit of excellence. Rather than attempting to write the “perfect” article, I strive to write the best one that I can, given the tools and the time available to me right now. From this point of view, there are an infinite number of ways to “get it right.” Choosing excellence over perfection makes our work more about us as real people, in real situations, and less about some abstract, unattainable standard. It keeps us practical and, therefore, more productive.

When we aim for perfect on the dance floor, the body tends to have a monotone movement quality. Embodying the following role with this intention might make us, for example, repeat a left turn or a boléo the exact same way every time. We’re unlikely to add musical nuance or adjust for changes in the leader’s muscle tone or expressive sensibility. Controlled and contained, dancers in this mode rarely experiment or take creative risks, staying within the (usually narrow) range that they have decided is correct.

Note: There are obviously certain technical guidelines that define tango’s (or any other dance’s) basic function and form, or that otherwise make it what it is. What I am referring to here are the stylistic and expressive choices that are curtailed by dancers operating from the sense that there is a “right” or “perfect” way to be in the following role.

In contrast, dancers striving for excellence in the following role are dynamic movers, frequently changing how they respond depending on the leader’s style and on the music that they hear, always seeking a personal connection that will make the dance memorable. Standing in the following role in this way makes us more flexible, both in our body and in our artistic interpretation. It invites dialogue that can surprise and inspire the leader.

The pursuit of excellence may sound like an obvious attribute of the work place, so let’s zoom in for a moment on the interactions we have with leaders in this sphere. How can we inoculate ourselves against perfectionism in the moments we are acting in a following capacity?

If a deadline is set by the leader, I need to be able to give it my best shot and then turn my work in on time, knowing full well that my proposal might need revision, that it might even need to be redone entirely. If I delay because it’s not perfect, I slow down the process and make it harder for the leader to make the next set of decisions. Getting it done, though, however imperfectly, might just be the catalyst that gives my leader a new and important idea. If I don’t turn it in, or if I turn in a proposal that simply meets the status quo (no creative risk, no imagination), that idea may never get hatched in my leader’s mind at all. Every task we complete in response to our leader is an opportunity for collaborative excellence.

There are also times when we’ll be asked to change our work, or to move in a different direction completely. If we’re operating under the influence of perfectionism, it might be hard to see other ways of doing the same thing. Remember: perfectionism is a negative judgement loop. It closes off our creativity with the fear of making mistakes and doing it “wrong.” Flexibility in our thinking returns when we commit to striving for excellence no matter what we’re asked to do.

Finally, when we allow ourselves to be imperfect, to take risks and experience “productive failure,” we are much more able to allow our leaders to do the same thing. This is one of the greatest gifts, I believe, that we can offer our leaders, both on the dance floor and at work. It relieves what can be a crushing amount of pressure, and helps the leader to relax, reconnect to her vision, and see (and therefore give) clear directions.

Staying engaged with the leader in the moment of her mistake can smooth out a rough moment in a dance, keeping the couple rotating safely around the floor, and it can also save a company very real time and money. If a project manager (in the role of leader) makes a budgeting error in front of a client, an engaged follower on the team might gracefully enter the conversation to clarify or add relevant information. If we are accustomed to the perfectionist paradigm, however, a mistake like this might paralyze us and leave the leader isolated.

Similarly, if the same manager forgets to inform a business partner about a meeting, an engaged follower might reach out to connect by teleconference at the last minute. If we’re thrown off by the leader’s mistake, we might be too busy assigning blame to even think of this possibility. Focusing on excellence reminds us that mistakes and missteps are normal, and that staying present is what enables us to find spontaneous ways to keep moving regardless of circumstances.

When I lead on the dance floor, my own most creative moments are always with followers who are pursuing a sense of creative excellence. When I’m leading someone who’s trying to be perfect, it’s actually much harder for me to tap into my own creativity, because, for me, it's dialogue and exchange that takes the dance higher. When I switch to the follower role, it's sometimes easy to forget this, and slip into right/wrong thinking. Stepping away from the fear and anxiety of perfectionism allows me, instead, to cultivate the creative dialogue that serves both partners.

Stay tuned next week for the final installment of this series, when we’ll replace Stereotype #3: Passivity with Empowered Quality #3: Readiness.

Do you have an example of how the pursuit of excellence influenced your Followership? Please leave your story in the comments!