Authentic Leadership Part 3

Tango Alchemie Festival, Prague 2008

Tango Alchemie Festival, Prague 2008

In part three of this series on leadership, I’m exploring two “characters” that I’ve known myself to play when stepping into a leadership role: the Superhero and the Visionary. The perspective of each is distinct, and provokes a certain style of interaction with followers. This post examines the patterns of each one.

Unrealistic Expectation #3: Heroism
Authentic Quality #3: Vision

On the dance floor, the superhero believes she is wholly responsible for the following partner’s pleasure and comfort. When I’m in this mode, I’m convinced it’s my job to ensure that every follower has a musical, creative, and fulfilling dance experience with me. I choose only movements and timings that are familiar and well-practiced, and I alter certain elements of my posture in order to match my partner’s shape, maybe lifting my chest or extending my arm more than is comfortable, or straining to appear taller or shorter than I am.

All of these adjustments may seem generous at first, and sometimes they may well be appropriate, but leading in this way all the time sacrifices something important. Because I’m focused on minimizing risk and prioritizing the following partner’s experience over my own, I find that dancing this way for a long time makes me emotionally and creatively detached. The narrowing of the scope of vocabulary and posture disconnects me from my own natural way of dancing, which is the primary gift I have to offer my follower in the first place. At the end of the night, I feel dissatisfied with the dance experience overall.

In addition to this loss of creative flow, I also think it’s worth acknowledging that although leaders certainly influence the dance experience for their followers, taking full responsibility is impossible. One simply cannot dictate another person’s experience. Operating on this false assumption, though, the superhero exaggerates the role of the leader and diminishes the role of the follower. How can we have creative dialogue if I’m doing everything?

Sometimes the superhero persona is projected onto the leader by others. In the context of dance, following partners might look to the leader to make them feel elegant, beautiful, and sexy as well as balanced, grounded, and centered. In the office, we might expect the leader to arrange for all projects to unfold on time, separate our work into manageable sections that magically fit together with everyone else’s, resolve all conflicts with other employees or with clients, fix our equipment problems, and eliminate environmental stress.

I’m not suggesting leaders do not have their part to play in these matters, but when the superhero character is active, both leader overreach and leader-blaming are common. When I am in the following role, I like to consider what I myself can change to make my work (or my dancing) more comfortable, meaningful, organized, relevant, interesting, or productive. For more on empowered following, see my previous posts on Support, Excellence, and Readiness.

On the other hand, if I’m in a position of leadership at work, I’m usually checking myself on how much responsibility I’m taking for my followers’ professional experience. Do I ask only for what I’m sure will be easy and simple for them, and then compensate by doing extra work myself? Do I avoid asking for creative or logistical help? Design plans and agendas that I think they may expect rather than what I am excited to try? Where am I sacrificing my own creative curiosity to a concern for my employees’ success or satisfaction?

I know when I’m trying to play the heroine and do it all for my follower, instead of with my follower, the dancing never goes as well as I hope. I simply can’t do someone else’s job for them. If I could, I wouldn’t need a partner at all, and social dance is defined by the duet. To access that creative power of two, either in dance or at work, I propose that we replace the superhero with the visionary as often as possible.

Visionaries invite followers to collaborate, to co-create dances or projects with them. Rather than attempt to do things for followers, they invite them to bring their own skills to the proverbial table (see authentic quality #2: Inspiration). Caveat: in dancing and business, there are definitely times when it’s appropriate and necessary to play it safe, and to curtail exploration. I’m just suggesting that as a general rule, heroism will not produce expansive creative dialogue between leaders and followers.

The visionary leader on the dance floor is connected to sensory impulses as well as intellectual ones, responding to a quality in the music that propels improvisation. Clarity of communication in the dance partnership is one of the visionary’s most defining characteristics. This leader’s posture is focused and still. She coordinates well-timed shifts of weight and changes in physical position, facing, and pressure that transmit to the follower a precise direction and speed.

When I manage to embody this character myself, I am in a state of heightened awareness and curiosity. There’s a deep trust that the phrasing in the music, the shifting spaces of the dance floor, and the sensation of my partner’s movement will coalesce to “show me” where the dance is going. I associate the visionary perspective with a focus on “seeing” the dance emerge rather than trying to engineer it intellectually. This sometimes includes a kind of corporeal “seeing” with the body. I articulate this vision to my partner through the non-verbal language of dance improvisation.

When I partner with visionary leaders, I always know exactly where to go next and when, but unlike the "command" state I discussed in Part 2 of this series, there is no rush or urgency. Instead, there is a deliberate quality from moment to moment that makes the dance feel new and fresh, even when the steps and patterns are familiar. There is a sense of discovery that comes from this leader making decisions, and therefore signals, based on what she is hearing or feeling in the moment, rather than based on memory or a habit of “automatic pilot.”

In the work place, exceptional and time-sensitive communication is also, of course, critical, but it may take more diverse forms (for example, speaking or writing, as well as nonverbal signals). Imagining a new product or seeing, in her mind’s eye, the client’s success, the visionary leader must communicate so that followers can then organize to make that vision a reality. The process is continual and back-and-forth, just like a dance partnership. The leader describes, the follower(s) prototype(s), the leader refines the description, the follower(s) develop(s) the work accordingly, and so on and so forth. In the work place, we may may even alternate between leading and following roles, depending on the process. (See my earlier post on how to lead and follow yourself through creative work).

The larger the vision, the more support it needs. By asking for that support, and by inviting the contributions of others through clear and consistent communication, visionary leaders clear a pathway for followers to pursue their individual work in a way that fits meaningfully into the larger picture. Even if the vision changes over time, it’s important to have one, because that is what drives creative dialogue. The more committed we are to our visions, even as they evolve, the easier it will be for followers to devote their energy to fulfilling them.

Do you have a story of visionary leadership? Please share in the comments!