My ballroom dancing partner (aka my wife) and I were recently stuck in a performance rut. We were at a standstill on the dancefloor, or more accurately a stand-off. The more effort I put into leading Johanna through the moves, the worse we synchronised and the unhappier she was becoming.
One evening our instructor Thomas, who had been watching us dance the cha-cha, nodded sagely to himself and then smiled at us. “Tell me about leadership,” he said. I had never actually connected ‘leadership’ with ‘leading’ in dance terms. Wasn’t dance ‘leading’ about directing my partner across the floor, ensuring she went where I decided, pushing her backwards and forwards, spinning her through underarm turns and other spins, and ensuring we navigated around the other couples? I felt the responsibility (and the pressure) in leading, to ensure we completed all the moves to the musical beat; and I thought I wasn’t doing such a bad job. So why was Johanna not receiving and responding to my telegraphed indications of the upcoming steps, resisting my helpful nudges and generally not enjoying the dancing?
Thomas listened, nodded, and then shook his head gently. He said he comes across this misconception in many new dancers. In fact, he had the same troubles in his early years. “Leadership is about giving your partner the space and opportunity to excel. When dancing, it might appear to an onlooker that you are making your partner fly around the floor. But that’s not what a good leader is doing. You don’t need to be using the egg-beater or the whisk on your partner.”
This was a revelation, but would it work in practice? He continued, “You don’t need to be micro-managing your partner’s movements. It’s about giving checks and balances, a gentle touch here and there to keep them on track, so they understand what they are aiming for. And then you need to get out of their way and let them get on with it.”
So part of the problem was my ‘micro-managing’ that meant that Johanna didn’t need to be actively participating in the dance routine. She was just going through the motions, my motions; allowing herself to be pushed and pulled around. Because I was in control and micro-managing, I wasn’t in the habit of letting her know what was coming up. I didn’t need to provide a long lead-time into the next move. But in trying to anticipate what I wanted, she had become tentative, reactive and wooden.
Reluctantly I had to admit that it was me that needed to make changes. A good start would be to indicate the next move on the count of three, rather than on five, Thomas advised. ‘Invite’ her into the move and then give her space. For example, I simply needed to invite her to perform an underarm turn by raising my left hand – I didn’t need to stir the pot and add further torque at her waist with my right hand.
In the space of a single lesson, with a few simple behavioural modifications, our performance began to improve. It appeared to all three of us that Johanna was sensing my guidance earlier and feeling and responding to my upper body position rather than waiting to be whisked by my arms. She began to actively participate, and flow more creatively. I also now had more time to be creative and concentrate on my own movements.
Okay, a dance partnership is most often a team of two, but does leading in the ballroom have some illuminating concepts for leaders in the boardroom and elsewhere? And vice-versa? I think so. An article in the final edition of the Australian Financial Review (AFR) for 2017, ‘What you need to be a better leader in 2018’, states that a successful leader needs a great “level of curiosity, agility, adaptability and courage to make decisions at increased pace.” Further, “leaders must possess the capability to create a working culture that allows for flexibility in strategy to manoeuvre the organisation”. Both statements could apply to dancing, right?
So in 2018, going beyond strategy and implementation (taking lessons and practising), I’ll be challenging myself to lead our dance partnership in a culture of trust; providing early guidance and just enough checks and balances and inviting my partner deliver. And if things go pear-shaped at any point? Well, we’ll just keep smiling, while focusing on a spot on the wall in the distance, and using our agility and adaptability to manoeuvre our way out of difficulty.