Dancing with Invention: Learn to lead and follow for creative collaboration
Infamous swimmer Ryan Lochte will be competing this year on Dancing with the Stars, a TV show where celebrities are taught partner dancing in a matter of weeks and perform dances like the waltz, swing, and tango in front of judges. A rather large number of Olympic athletes have been on (and won) the show in past years. It’s not hard to imagine how learning how to partner dance could train the agility and precision needed for athletics. But today, I’m going to argue how partner dancing (taught well) trains a unique skill necessary for innovative teams: creative collaboration.
It takes two to tango, but only one lead
Defining roles is important in any team. In this case, the term “leader” is not synonymous with “manager”. You can still maintain a flat org with no hierarchical structure, but when actually working on tasks and projects, it is crucial to identify who is leading each initiative. This becomes apparent when dancing. The follower does not report to the leader or get paid less. The leader does not write performance reviews for the follower. By convention, a man typically leads a woman, but it is becoming common for the roles to switch or for people of the same gender to dance together. When this happens, someone still takes the role of the lead and someone takes the role of the follow. In partner dancing, one role is not better than the other, but the skills and actions taken are very different. Similarly in a collaborative team, two people should not act identically. It will result in a lot of stepping on toes, false starts, awkwardness, and dropped balls. In order to work on something effectively, someone must take the lead, and someone must follow.
Following is just as important as leading
In a brilliant salsa, or an elegant waltz, who do you watch? A great leader provides the support for the follower to shine. Without the follower, there is no dance. It is the output from a good leader, and a brilliant follower that combines to create something much greater than the sum of its parts. This is true in any team endeavour, especially a creative one which requires inspiration rather than repetition, art rather than manipulation. In non-choreographed dancing, the actions of the leader, the interpretation of the follower, and the inspiration of the music results in an ever changing poetry of motion. It is a creation that is dictated by neither the leader or the follower, but is more unique, innovative, and beautiful as a result.
Leading is following
But doesn’t the lead control everything that is danced? This is a misconception with both partner dancing and team management. Every person follows a dance differently. People have different, heights and weights, experience, and cultural backgrounds that result in dance “accents”. (Believe me, it is easy to tell if someone’s first dance was walt, ballet, or swing). And each person will follow differently depending on the music, the mood, and even the surface of the floor. A leader must adjust his actions to the follower’s reactions to his lead, and the the music. How does the follow move? What moves work well and which don’t? Which foot is she on? Where is her weight? After you have been dancing for a while, you’ll realize that leading is more about following than about leading. This is true with team collaboration as well. In a creative team, you can’t dictate innovation. The leader can give direction and momentum but needs to adapt quickly to take advantage of the creativity and inspiration from the team.
When teaching people to dance, I suggest that both leaders and followers learn the opposite role. It is extremely helpful to understand how to perform the opposite role in order to perform your primary role better. How can you lead a dance if you don’t understand what the follower is doing? Dancing is a great way to practice empathy. You literally put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Additionally, switching roles while dancing adds a tremendous amount of variety and exciting new possibilities to unchoreographed dancing. My wife and I often switch lead and follow roles in the middle of a song. To do this seamlessly, you need to be very aware of the other person and be able sense the openness they have to switching. Sometimes the lead starts running out of moves or gets tired and needs support. In this case, the follow can exert a little pressure, switch grips, and BOOM, roles have switched, and the dance is exciting once more. The same thing happens in collaborative teams. The initial leader might have started off great, but maybe she is becoming overburdened by other tasks, or maybe the initiative has shifted to something outside her expertise. In a highly collaborative team, someone else would step up and offer leadership, and the rest of the team would accept that offer. We are all leaders and followers in our lives and should be open to playing both roles when the time is right.
Does this seem too ideal? The real workplace is full of politics and power struggles and dominance. But it doesn’t have to be. You can practice these ideals everyday. Every task, no matter how small, is an opportunity to be a great leader or an amazing follower. And if you have the opportunity to take partner dancing lessons, please do, but focus on a place that focuses on partnering and connection, not just memorized steps. By experiencing the beautiful dynamics of leading and following in dance, you can experience the dynamics and the feelings you might want to achieve in the workplace. You’ll be more aware of the power of clear yet dynamic roles and be able to apply this smoothly to collaborations in other parts of your life.