Authentic Leadership Part 2

This week, I'm exploring the second of three unrealistic expectations we often hold of leaders, and a corresponding "authentic quality" that might replace it both on the dance floor and in the work place. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that this comparison is a right-wrong axis, only that we have choices in how we embody the concepts of leadership and followership, and that perhaps we live in greater alignment with our own values when we become more intentional about those choices. In case you missed it, you may like to go back and check out the first installment!

Unrealistic Expectation #2: Command
Authentic Quality #2: Inspire

In social dance, a command pattern in the leader is typically marked by excessive physical force. Even if the touch is lighter, there is still an urgent quality to her signals and requests that interferes with smooth and expressive dancing. Usually, the leader’s torso or entire body is continually moving in advance of the follower’s body, creating the feeling of being dragged along. When I’m partnering with a leader like this, I’m often resisting the extra pressure with strong muscle tone through my arms and core in order to protect myself from discomfort or injury. Because most of my attention is focused on this task, I rarely feel that I’m actually dancing, much less dancing at my best. Rather, I’m struggling to keep up and to stay safe.

When I fall into this mode myself as the leader, my focus is on getting things done, but not really on how they are done, and that generally means that they end up being done poorly. The movement itself is needlessly strenuous and, in more extreme cases, disconnected from musical tempo, melody, or rhythm. Rushing through the dance in this way doesn’t allow space and time for following partners to move organically. It holds us both back from reaching our artistic potential.

Baltimore Tango Festival 2005. Photo by Marty Katz

Baltimore Tango Festival 2005. Photo by Marty Katz

In place of physical force, a commanding leader in the work place might employ negative strategies like intimidation, shame, or threat of punishment to motivate actions or behaviors in followers. These strategies have limited capacity for success. As in dance, no follower can produce their best work when distracted by some external, aggressive force.

Like the follower’s stereotype of Obedience, the expectation of Command is an outdated concept of leadership, and with some rare exceptions, does not serve the practical needs of a contemporary work place. When we lead with the notion of command, we create for ourselves a disciplinary role, coercing followers into specified actions, tasks, or behaviors with little to no regard for their creative, or even human, needs. Like the unrealistic notion of Control, it is fundamentally a limiting approach.

In fact, when we think of leadership as command, it’s tempting to de-value and diminish our followers, to reduce them to instruments with which we, alone, build our projects and companies. In reality, no one can build anything alone. Rather, leaders very much need talented and vibrant followers with whom they can collaborate on the shaping of those projects and companies. (It’s useful to note, here, that collaboration doesn’t mean abandoning leading and following roles. We still need both leaders and followers to come together, and we may even need to switch roles periodically, depending on the situation.) So, rather than commanding our followers, what if we sought to inspire them instead?

Inspiration is a positive, expansive energy. When we inspire, we set a high standard by embodying desired attitudes and values in our own speech and behavior. We focus more on collective reward instead of individual punishment, and we call on followers to connect with their own power, and with their full capacity to engage in their work. Rather than settling forthe bare minimum of "getting it done," this approach focuses on getting it done with excellence.

On the dance floor, an inspirational leader gives a following partner space and time to rise to the occasion, to take the strongest and most balanced step within his or her current ability. The leader’s task is not to force, but to facilitate the creative expression of the dance. When I partner an inspiring leader, I often discover that I am more capable that I thought I was, or that I’m able to execute certain combinations or timings that I didn't think I could.

In the work place, inspiring leadership might raise the level of performance and ingenuity in anything is being produced. Rather than dance steps, it may be software programs, product designs, typography, polymers, backpack designs, or marketing strategies. Whatever we do, we do it better when we feel inspired. In most cases, we want to do our best, and simply need the conditions of our environment to make it easy and natural for us to do so. These conditions in the office may be similar to those on the dance floor: clear communication, respectful advance notice of expectations, priorities, and deadlines, appropriate amounts of space, and appropriate amounts of time.

You may have had the experience of working more efficiently when you’re in the same room with others who are similarly focused. Knowing that another person fully trusts you to finish a report on time might push it a little higher on your list of priorities. Finally, consider that when you're invited to invest your own ideas, perspective, and skills in a project, you're probably more likely to aim high. Inspiration makes us want to do our best, and that positive, internal force is always stronger than a negative, external one.

Do you have stories of inspiring leadership? Please leave them in the comments!