Leadership Lessons from Ballroom Dancing

Many leaders are so focused on leading their own organizations that it becomes all-encompassing.  That’s a shame, because by regularly turning away from the business and instead focusing on an outside hobby, pursuit or passion, one can actually become a better leader.

I spoke recently with Patrice Tanaka, who is co-chair, chief creative officer and Whatcanbe ambassador for CRT/tanaka. She believes that pursuing her passion has improved her life, her business and her leadership acumen. She wasn’t always this way.

After too many years as a workaholic, Tanaka started competitive ballroom dancing seven years ago.  Before that she had never even had a hobby.

“Nothing was as compelling as my work, so I poured everything into that.  As a result, my life wasn’t balanced, my perspective was skewed, and I had no outlet for my personal creativity” says Tanaka.

Opening One’s Eyes…Through Dancing

Tanaka states that prior to ballroom dancing, she “naively and arrogantly believed that I had all the great ideas, and if my ideas prevailed, my company would succeed.”  With hindsight, Tanaka sees that limited her perspective and also limited her company’s success potential.

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One of the first lessons she learned from ballroom dancing was that having a strong leader wasn’t enough: a strong partner-follower plays an equally critical role in winning.  “The first time my dancing partner said ‘Will you please let me lead?!’ was a real eye-opener for her.” She didn’t know that she was hogging the leadership role.

Tanaka says this perspective has allowed her to be more empathetic to others’ input, especially during creative sessions.

Before she danced competitively, Tanaka says she was a slave to perfection.  “I believed that it wasn’t enough to have a big idea and execute it superbly, but that you had to implement it flawlessly, impeccably, and meticulously.  That made me an unforgiving taskmaster.”

Going All Out

Pursuing her passion taught her that being an unforgiving taskmaster impedes organizational success.

“If you’re afraid you won’t execute each step just so, you’ll hold back, and you’ll fail.  Judges really aren’t looking for small errors—they’re much more concerned if you’re dancing ‘full-out’ and with passion.”

“Dancing full-out means not playing it safe, not worrying about making mistakes or how you look, but taking risks.  It’s about getting out of your comfort zone, something real leaders must do on a regular basis. If you fail, you fail, and you learn from it.  But if you don’t do it, you’re not really a leader,” says Tanaka.

As a result, Tanaka says she now approaches life—and business—more fearlessly.

Real Life Test

This approach was put to the test a few years ago when her firm was “pitching” a major account.  The company had the option of creating a “PR-only” approach to a potential client’s situation, or it could go out of its comfort zone and partner with another organization that offered branding, advertising and other marketing services such as media buying, research, database marketing, and trade support.

Courage won the day.  Her firm partnered with the agency, offered a full-bore marketing campaign and won the business.  It’s now the agency’s biggest account.

Tanaka has absolutely no plans to change her dedication to dancing.  In fact, she’s created a website dedicated to it, named, appropriately enough, Samba Girl.

Would you be a better leader if you “followed” from time to time? Could you enhance your leadership skills by spending more time pursuing your hobby or passion?   Are you finding non-work outlets for your creativity and sources of creative inspiration?   Or are you so focused on work that you seek perfection rather than performance?

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Author’s NOTE: If you think that ballroom dancing could enhance your leadership style, check out This Site and This One

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Ken Jacobs is the principal of Jacobs Communications Consulting LLC.
He can be reached at
ken@jacobscomm.com

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10 Responses

  1. OMG – I love this! And I totally agree.

    For a couple of reasons….let’s start with the practical.

    I dance Argentine tango – as a follower. The tango is a completely improvised dance, so I think it’s a wonderful metaphor for working with others.

    I can share that if the leader is very strong, it is hard to not do what he wants – the signals are clear and if one trusts the leader and is relaxed, the movements emerge automatically.

    On the other hand, if the signals aren’t clear or if there is room for ambiguity or the follower isn’t familiar with a step he wants, then following might not happen “as intended”. That is to say, the follower try’s, but doesn’t do what the leader expects — which can lead to disaster. Or at least some ugly mis-steps until they get back in sync.

    But if the leader can follow – ah bliss! – then, there are several possible outcomes:
    – he follows my “mistake” and we dance on looking like we meant to do exactly what we did 8^)
    – he knows better how much of a signal is needed and how it might be misread, so his leading is clearer in the first place
    – he is better able to gauge my following abilities and not lead me somewhere I can’t go

    All of which I see as useful for leadership elsewhere:
    – using what people do to keep things moving creatively forward, even when it wasn’t the vision you had in mind
    – making your leading as clear as possible so people know what you want and expect; anticipating the ways they might misunderstand or be confused
    – knowing the capabilities of your followers and leading accordingly

    On a more philosophical note, I think dancing is a wonderful metaphor for leadership, because I also believe leading requires an ability to mirror the followers as much as the followers have to learn to mirror their leaders. In tango, this is called “inter-leading” and represents a back and forth where the follower gives subtle signals which the leader incorporates into his dance plans while the follower is reading his signals and following. So the dance actually emerges as a delicate blending of leading and following by both parties.

    And isn’t that what leadership is all about? Getting the best of your partners’ skills?

  2. Good Day!

    TO be a good leader it makes sense to “put yourself in your followers shoes” directly or indirectly. No one that I am aware of is a leader in every role in their life. In some contexts and roles they follow.

    Following gives a new perspective and gives you new insights (unless your eyes are closed!).

    Declining are the days of the Type A workaholic leader. More people and organisations are waking up to this. Putting more than 9 hours a day sees the law of diminishing returns on productivity and performance.

    From expereince, one of the first questions I ask my coaching clients is “If you are leading your team, then who leads you?” An ensuing question is, “If you are not growing, how can you expect your team to grow?”. You are either growing or you are dying.

    Finding a new channel of energy and a new passion only add dimensions to who you are and what you are capable of.

    So…there remians one question…

    “Can I have this dance?”

    Be Awesome!
    Dr Richard Norris

  3. Hmm? Just as I finished my previous comment, this quote was in my inbox:

    Today, let your heart dance. You will find no shortage of dance partners, as your feet join in. And your eyes. And your smile. And every part of your body and your feelings. Let your heart dance all day long.

    Unknown

    Be Awesome!
    Richard

  4. Leadership Lessons? YES

    Communication SKILLS Most Definitely.

    As a Speaker / Performer I teach Communication Skills to people with out them realizing it. Using Dance I teach the Practice of Lead & Follow (Speak & Listen), Invitation & Acceptance to an Idea (Movement & Action).

    In the Corporate World learning Communication Skills through the formula Body Motion (muscle memory) + Clearer Verbal Skills = Experiential Learning.

    I have been teaching Dance on Cruise Ships, Corporate offices and Community Centers for nearly 20 years. Now I take it directly to the Offices that realize that their communication skills are less than Excellent. Corporate Team Building Dances are an effective Ice Breaker to Fun and show obvious results of your communication skills. To create a safe environment to move and see the direct results of your “Lead” and “Follow” builds the confidence to “Speak” to your staff and they provide “Actions” that are completed with a SMILE.

    Yes it works well.

    Time Spent on the Dance Floor is NOT Deducted From Ones Life Span.

    Cheers,

    Tom Hobbs
    TomHobbsONLINE.com

  5. Ken,
    As a long-time Israeli folk dancer, I absolutely agree with the article and comments. Dance allows you to express yourself but within the limits of the circle, line and/or partner – you have to be aware of your neighbors so you don’t fling an elbow into their face or step on their toes (at least not too often). It gives you a chance to develop your own dance and leadership skills in a non-threatening environment. It’s also very aerobic and invigorating – if you want to give folk dancing a try, there are many sessions all over the US – take a look and see what’s out there!

  6. As a social ballroom dancer I couldn’t agree more. Dancing is all about partneership. If one partner doesn’t play their part then the whole thing doesn’t work. It’s the same in business. Learning when to lead and when to follow are vital skills in all areas of life.

  7. Check out the wiki I administer for the International leadership Association with ira Chaleff, author of The Couagrous Follower: Standing UP To and For Our Leaders. There are articles on leading and following insights to be derived through Tango in our “dance” folder in the sidebar of our wiki and also one on “The Principle of the Second Follower” in our group behavior section– it deals with a video of the Sasquatch Feestival and looks at individual initiative vs. lemming-like behavior in spontaneous dance. Click on the above ural.

  8. Thanks to everyone who took the time to comment.

    I, like Patrice Tanaka, clearly believe that leaders can learn tremendous lessons from ballroom dancing, as well as from other hobbies, pursuits and passions. (Stay tuned for additional related posts.)

    Your comments intensified my views on this, and your insights broadened my perspectives.

    Thanks to all.

    Ken Jacobs
    Jacobs Communications Consulting, LLC

  9. [...] their leadership skills–and their results–by pursuing their passions, one through ballroom dancing and the other through “showing” [...]

  10. [...] was brave enough to blog on my own, I featured PT, as she’s known, in a guest post I wrote on Leadership Lessons From Ballroom Dancing for [...]

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