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This week I’m exploring the second of three empowered followership qualities, qualities that I hope can help replace outdated stereotypes of this role as we experience it both on the dance floor and in professional work environments.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