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.
This article explores inclusion as a key leadership skill. For the purposes of this article, I’ll define inclusion as facilitating participation. In the dance world, this principle is seen as critical to achieving voluntary and dynamic follower engagement. It is therefore a key insight for businesses and organizations seeking to improve and sustain employee engagement.
In a dance for two, there’s no denying the need for the other person to participate fully. Inclusion, by this definition, is built in. On the edges of the dance floor, an elaborate ritual of eye contact and silent gesture emphasizes the importance of inviting a single, specific follower to dance, and of registering that follower’s response to the invitation. Acceptance is not guaranteed; the follower’s response is recognized as a free choice. Accepting a dance, therefore, is always an expression of active engagement.
Invitation and response are in constant dialogue in a dance community.
Participants might dance with a dozen different partners in a single evening, and the next night, a dozen more. Beyond acknowledgment of the pair dynamic, there is a high value placed on the community-building aspect of social dance, on meeting new people in new places, and on welcoming beginners. Dancers understand that we need each other in order to thrive, and that success is always a shared phenomenon.
Imagine taking this perspective into work with you, looking around at your coworkers and thinking to yourself, “I need these people in order to do my job. I depend on them. They make what I do possible. I have this job because of their free choice to be here with me as part of this team.” You may not think about your career with the same excitement that social dancers bring to their dancing. Still, the analogy is an interesting one because it fundamentally changes how we see our colleagues and how we value our relationships with them.
Here’s how dancing leaders train to practice inclusion in ways that solicit creative engagement from each of their dance partners. Try them in your work environment with those who follow you professionally. Note that following at work is not always hierarchical – we often follow one another as same-level colleagues or team members around specific conversations or projects.
1. A Light Touch
Physically, dancers train to seek an ever-shifting balance between firmness and softness in the muscle tone of their arms, shoulders, and torso. The leader tends toward firmness and the follower, softness, though there is an element of both present in each role as the two partners settle into a yin/yang type of equilibrium. The leader must establish sufficient physical contact (firmness) to give physical signals while also ensuring that the follower can move freely (softness).
Translating this concept into verbal conversations means finding a similar balance between expressing your own ideas and agenda and adjusting your language based on how others are understanding or responding to it. Often, as in dance, the response indicates what is needed next. More details? More context? Every team is different. Rather than a monologue, approach each conversation, meeting, or presentation as a dialogue. Look for both verbal and non-verbal cues to adjust what you are sharing and how you are sharing it.
2. Verify Responses
In the same way that the initial invitation requires a positive response, every step of the dance thereafter requires a response as well, and so the leader must continue to check to be sure the follower has responded. This process becomes seamless over time, occurring within milliseconds, and well connected couples may appear to have moved beyond it completely, but it is always there below the surface, invisible. A skilled leader will never drag or over-ride a follower if they momentarily miss a signal or fail to respond for any reason. Instead, skilled leading requires the follower’s response to be accounted for, included, every time. If it is not, misunderstanding or discomfort are likely. In more extreme cases, injury may result for one or both partners.
In a professional environment, verification may be as straightforward as observing your team in action and checking in with them regularly. More formal examples might be checklists that ensure appropriate safety measures are completed, or bi-directional feedback processes from follower to leader as well as leader to follower. Confirming action items at the close of meetings or verbally restating new and updated deliverables each morning are also opportunities to make sure followers are included and responding from a sense of free choice. In groups, the act of speaking itself registers importance. Leaders are in a position to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to speak on a regular basis, even those who are less inclined to do so.
3. Make Space
In their musical interpretation of each song, advanced leaders rarely step on every single note. Rather, they slide between rhythm and phrase, emphasizing different moments in the musical narrative, creating multiple speeds, accelerations, de-celerations, breaks, and pauses. In this varied musical landscape, naturally occurring spaces in time emerge for followers to comment, embellish, and stylize the shared dance.
Part of leader training is also to leave physical space for other couples on the dance floor, understanding that it is the entire community’s participation that makes for a strong and memorable dance experience. They do this by economizing the space they and their partners occupy with each sequence of movement. Just as followers train to manage a compact dancing space around their leaders, so leaders train to manage the dance floor as a whole, continually regulating the distances between themselves and other couples in coordination with other leaders. When dancers share the floor, the community thrives.
At work, factoring in space for others might look like literally making room for everyone’s chair around the conference table, or sitting next to someone rather than on the other side of a desk. It can also mean leaving time for comments or discussion in a meeting, speaking slowly, pausing for others to think before moving ahead, or asking for questions or feedback at designated points in a presentation. This principle is also a reminder to guard against micro-managing and to focus on common goals and objectives, inviting others to fulfill them according to their own expertise, training, and preference. It may also look like implementing flexible work schedules and the decision to link compensation with work outcomes rather than with hours logged.