Leading and Following in Real Life

The way we think about gender roles in social dance is changing as we learn to embody our current social values on the dance floor. I’m often asked why so many more women want to lead than men want to follow. There are many answers, of course, but one of them lies, I think, outside the studio, where remnants of an outdated gender hierarchy still linger. Consider the celebration of, and investment in, leadership in our corporate and educational institutions, a role still associated with men and masculinity. In contrast, there is a near total absence of followership as a concept in those same spheres. Women take on the role of leader more and more, but the concept of a “follower” remains stigmatized.

In fairness, social dancers today have different associations with the terms leader and follower than the average person. My sense is that they see these roles more equitably, and for that reason I think we as a community have great insights to offer at home, at work, and in civic life. Fixed gender roles tend to reinforce a hierarchical system, but as they gradually loosen, it becomes easier to examine the lead and follow dynamic as a complimentary way of relating independent of gender.

Photo by Isaac Oboka 2011

Photo by Isaac Oboka 2011

Let’s explore following first, since it’s much less celebrated in our world. What do we do when we stand in the following role? What do we offer those who lead us? I’m not proposing an absolute definition because I don’t think there is one. Rather, I think that we define a term like “following” every time we embody it, either on or off the dance floor. If you could decide for yourself what following means (and you can), what would you choose?

Reflecting on my dance experience, I like to conceptualize the follower’s task as preparing the way for, even calling forth, a creative vision. By remaining calm, stable, and present, by actively listening and receiving, I try to make it natural and easy for my partner to communicate and to make decisions, to both see possibilities and spontaneously pursue them. This is much more difficult than it sounds, and requires tremendous focus. If you are a dancer, it’s probably obvious how this would be beneficial on a dance floor, but how about in an office environment? How could your interactions with co-workers and managers be fundamentally supportive? Who around you might benefit from your attentive listening? From your calm and stable presence?

In my vision of leading, my role is to facilitate and enable a high-performing, expressive state in my partner. I try to do this by providing a clear structure and precise direction, but also, importantly, by adjusting that structure and direction based on constantly changing circumstances. I observe what is happening around us and calibrate my choices to the needs of the moment. This profile probably sounds familiar in both a dance and non-dance context. That’s because, I think, we are already well-indoctrinated in the merits of good leadership. If you’re a parent, you can probably imagine scenarios where communicating clear guidelines would be useful. If you’re organizing a pot luck, you might coordinate by asking who wants to bring what, but you don’t micro-manage by sending out recipes. You provide the structure and let your guests express the content.

Photo by Isaac Oboka 2010

Photo by Isaac Oboka 2010

You may read the descriptions of leader and follower and say, but I do both of these things all the time. In real life, it’s not one or the other. And you would be right! So why split them at all? Well, learning as I do from dance about life, I think it’s true that although we do exercise both leading and following faculties all day long, we may not always be aware of when we are using them. On the dance floor, we have the luxury of their clear separation, and we can see how they flow together to create a dance (Caveat: I actually believe both partners “lead” and “follow” simultaneously, in distinct ways, and that topic is addressed in another blog post).

Back to real-world application: my hunch is that this creative dynamic can be enhanced in other scenarios by asking ourselves when we need to play the role of follower, and when the leader. At home or at work, with each delicate conversation, do we need to listen and receive more, or do we need to structure and decide more? The needs may change from hour to hour, week to week.

As a director, for example, sometimes more structure and direction is called for, but other times, listening is more appropriate. As a member of a large organization, receiving may be the default, but there certainly comes a time when speaking up and making your own decisions can save time or money – indeed, it can even save lives. Knowing when to switch modes, and doing so gracefully, might deepen and strengthen a relationship, bring greater value to a company, and increase empathy and cohesion in social situations.

For more excellent insight and guidance on the power of strong followership in particular, I highly recommend Ira Chaleff’s excellent books The Courageous Follower and Intelligent Disobedience.

How do leading and following show up in your life?