Although it may seem surprising, we can learn a lot about effective team leadership from analyzing tango social dance training. For dancers, the role of leader is not “better than” but rather “complementary to” the role of follower. Whether you’re a leader in your workplace all the time or just for certain projects or meetings, this perspective can radically shift your interactions with those whom you hope will follow you!
Seeing yourself as a leader who partners with followers may sound strange at first, but it is actually a powerful way to build authentic connection, increase productivity, and stimulate innovation.
One foundational leadership skill is clarity, the ability to both think and communicate clearly. Everyone needs this skill, of course, whether leading or following, but when we act from a position of leadership, we need it more frequently. Goals and tasks must be clear in order for teams to function. Information must be transparent if others are to make responsible decisions. A single leader can perform this function, or a team may clarify plans for itself collectively, sharing the leadership role.
Leaders on the dance floor usually know when they are not being completely clear, because following partners train themselves to wait for a signal before they take each step. If there is no signal, or if the signal is confusing, the follower – and therefore the couple – remains still until the message is repeated or clarified. Follower training includes active listening and the willingness to wait or even tactfully interrupt – complementary skills that alert the leader to the need for further clarification and re-alignment. Without this prompting from followers, it is easy to assume others are with us when they are not.
Leader-Follower misunderstandings at work are not always as visible as they are on the dance floor. Perhaps you felt frustrated after a long meeting, having worked hard to describe your proposal yet still feeling that no one really got it. Maybe you’ve experienced group members nodding their heads in silence and then moving on, soon to forget everything that came before. Even the most articulate leaders need followers to invest in the matter at hand in order for the conversation to move the work forward.
Beginner dancers in the following role sometimes go on autopilot, assuming they know what to do even when they haven’t listened to what the leader is asking for. Or they may invent something on their own, disregarding the leader’s direction completely. When this happens, dancing is choppy and erratic. At work, comparable communication breakdowns can result in missed opportunities, delay, redundancy, conflict, or error.
Below are three ways dancing leaders use clarity to encourage followers to engage with them every step of the way, literally! Try them at work, even if you’re remote right now, and see what happens.
1. Calm body
Tango dancers train the body to rest in equilibrium by relaxing muscle groups that are not needed while engaging others that are. Their movements are centered, minimal, and efficient, much like martial artists. This physical training contributes to clear thinking, decision making, and communication, and it is one powerful insight that we can take directly and immediately into the work environment. We can take our own mental struggle as a cue to take a break and reconnect with our physicality. Stretch, walk, and breathe deeply, then come back to your work. Check your work station for supportive ergonomics and remove clutter. Take a moment to release excess tension in the jaw, neck, and shoulders. Try a 10-minute mindfulness meditation.
2. Right timing
Improvised tango occurs one step at a time; there is no choreography. Leaders, therefore, must give hundreds of individual messages to their followers one at a time until the dance is over, perfectly synchronized with music. At work, being intentional about when to communicate is not the same as withholding information or keeping others in the dark. Rather, it’s about respecting your team members’ time, attention, and capacity. Does everyone really need to be at the weekly meeting? Does the meeting need to be an hour long? Maybe short individual stand-up meetings everyday are more useful? Discuss with your team how frequently they need to communicate with you, and experiment until you find the right rhythm.
The same signal that works with one dance partner doesn’t always work with another. Leaders must notice when followers are not responding, when they don’t understand, or when they’ve misunderstood. They must have a variety of ways of communicating the same thing. Where dancers use a repertory of physical movement signals, professionals use words. Acknowledge to your team up front that you are not a perfect communicator, and that you are interested in a dialogue, not a monologue. Especially when developing new projects or new plans, let them know that you need them to ask questions when they don’t understand or when they suspect something may be missing. Acknowledge and thank them for doing so!