About 15 years ago, back in my dancing days, I attended a workshop led by Frankie Manning, considered one of the founding fathers of lindy hop. Manning danced and taught his entire life, and was probably in his early 80’s at the time of this workshop. Despite his age, his mastery and energy were on full display as he taught intricate dance moves and wowed the crowd with demonstrations.
The event organizers had sold raffle tickets throughout the day, and the grand prize for the raffle was an opportunity to dance with the master himself. At the end of the day, when the drawing was held, the winner approached Manning for her dance. She was clearly a bit nervous. As they began to dance, it was also clear that she was a beginning dancer. At this point, Frankie Manning showed what truly made him a master. He didn’t lead her in any flashy, complicated moves. Instead, he met her where she was, and led her in basic steps that allowed her to connect with him and enjoy the dance. He downplayed his ability and let her shine.
I was touched by Frankie Manning’s kindness and lack of ego that day, and have remembered it ever since. These days, as I work with leaders and teams facing challenges in producing their desired results, I think his behavior serves as a lesson for anyone seeking to lead others effectively. In fact, partner dancing holds many lessons for leaders. Here are a few I’ve identified as I reflect on my dancing days.
I met my husband on the dance floor. West coast swing, hustle, nightclub two-step. Lots of salsa. For a long time, before it became clear that there was something more substantive going on, we had a dance floor romance. I loved to dance with him, and this largely had to do with how easy he was to follow. His leads were crystal clear, with no extraneous fluff, and he provided just the right amount of structure. His “frame,” in dancing lingo, was neither too tight, not allowing me enough room to maneuver on my own, nor too loose, failing to provide enough guidance for me to know his intentions.
The analogy to organizational leadership here is clear. Is your team clear about roles and responsibilities? Do you have a well-defined decision making process? Do people know and understand your intended direction? Teams need this structure and clarity to excel.
While there are certainly flashy moves for dance leads, the best leads allow their follows to shine, even if it draws attention away from their own contribution. Good leads see their role as providing the container within which their follows can look good and dance their best. At the same time, they operate by the adage that if a follow is unsuccessful, there’s always something there for the lead to learn about how to do better. Research on organizational leadership is also clear on this point. Jim Collins (Good to Great) as well as other researchers have described the pattern they see with the most successful leaders: they take personal responsibility when things go wrong, but attribute the credit to their teams when they meet success.
My husband is not what I’d call a natural dancer. There are others on the dance floor with more innate rhythm, or more personal flair. Yet, I’ve danced with few other leads I would choose over him. What turned him into my preferred dance partner? Practice. While the moves may not come naturally to him, he dedicated himself to mastering the craft over many years, and it shows. Becoming a masterful organizational leader depends on the same sort of practice. You may have a flair for the business, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into having the capacity to successfully lead others. That takes focused practice.
Dancing, like organizational life, is complex. When you’re learning something new, it helps a great deal to stay focused on one thing at a time. That may mean sticking with one step before you add a new one, or it may mean mastering west coast swing before you move on to salsa. The same is true when it comes to organizational learning. If you’re asking people to implement change or learn something new, don’t expect them to be able to take on everything at once. Make sure you give them the time and opportunity to practice that will lead to sustained results.
It’s a given on the dance floor that the best leads also know how to follow. They’ve put the time into learning that role, because they know that it makes them a better lead. They actually experience the effects of dancing with an unclear lead, and develop an appreciation for what kind of lead behavior creates the conditions for follows to demonstrate their best. Placing yourself in the shoes of your team also makes you a better organizational leader. When was the last time you truly explored your team’s world? Whether by rolling up your sleeves and joining them in their work for the day, or by sustained listening as they describe their experience, how do you regularly learn about how your leadership impacts their ability to get the job done?
Social dancing is fraught with possibilities for rejection. Every person you ask to dance can say no. Some people may gravitate to the way you dance, and some may not like it. You have to have a thick skin in order to persist. Organizational leadership can feel like that too. People may not always applaud your decisions, or agree with the direction you want to go. While it’s important to stay connected with these people and open to opposing views, it’s equally important to be able to stay centered when others reject you or your ideas, and to have the courage of your convictions even when that means standing alone for a time.
This last lesson takes me full circle back to my story about Frankie Manning. What I witnessed that day was all the more touching to me as it stood in contrast to another experience I had on the dance floor. One night, I asked a man if he wanted to dance with me. This was someone I recognized from previous dances – I knew he was a very good dancer, much better than me, and I found him attractive as well. So I had to muster up some courage to ask him, and I felt good when he said yes.
Then we started to dance together, and the good feeling faded. He led me in one complicated step after another, none of which I really knew, and as I fumbled my way through I realized that he was deliberately leading me in moves that were beyond my ability. We were dancing in front of some friends of his, and they all kept exchanging glances. He had an amused smile on his face, and made no effort to help me follow his leads.
Though I wish I had stopped the dance and walked away, I suffered through it, feeling embarrassed and hurt. Needless to say, I never asked him to dance again. Now, as I think about both this experience and the kindness I witnessed from Frankie Manning, I ask myself, Which of these men would I rather have as the leader of my organization? Who would I work harder for? The answer seems obvious to me.
What about you? From where have you learned some of your most valuable leadership lessons? I’d love to hear your thoughts!