What I Learned About Leadership From Dance Lessons

Several years ago, I reluctantly agreed to take ballroom dance lessons. I’m glad I did. When you begin a modern marriage (listen up, young ‘uns), you both go into it as partners. The arrangement you presume is that you are going to be in charge of some things and she is going to be in charge of others. You expect that this sensible division of labor will make the marriage more productive and the relationship stronger. You secretly presume that you will be in charge of the big things and she the little things. What happens is something different.

As time goes by, the number of things you are in charge of diminishes. You may still claim command of the big things, but you discover there aren’t any big things left. One exception — if you are a TV watcher (which you shouldn’t be) — is the remote control. As my old friend AS puts it, “When we got married, we were both sergeants. Twenty years later, she’s a general while I’m still a sergeant. I don’t know how she got promoted, but she did.” Actually, the problem is stickier.

Until you finally give up the pretense of control, you tend to tug/struggle/fight over who is in charge of what. The wonderful thing about ballroom dancing is that one person is definitely the leader. There is no debate. And for me, at least, there was a certain surprise and delight in discovering it was to be me! Yes, in ballroom dancing — even today — the man leads. This is a flagrant contradiction — not only of the course of a marriage but also of common sense.

After all, your wife can dance. And you look (and feel) ridiculous on the dance floor. No matter. Tradition rules in this rare world. You may move like Steve Martin in “The Jerk,” but you are in charge of the dance. “It usually comes as quite a shock,” PL, our dance instructor, explained to us that first day, “but if you stick with it, it can work.” It was quite a trial for KFF. She almost broke down several times mid-lesson. “I don’t think I can do this!” she said in a voice that sent chills down my spine. “Learning to follow,” PL said sympathetically, “is not easy. It’s a skill. And for some people, a difficult one.

For one thing, you have to do the same thing your partner is doing except backward. Just as important, you have to follow his lead even if it seems as if he’s going the wrong way.” Oh, how I loved that. But now that the initial glee has faded (just a little, I admit), I have come to realize that being a good leader involves much more than just getting your partner to do things your way.

It also requires:

1. Knowledge: You must know what you are doing. If you don’t, you are being unfair to your partner.

2. Preparation: You must think about what you are going to do — plan it thoughtfully — before you do it. You can’t expect your partner to follow your lead if your lead is weak or confused because you are making a decision at the last moment.

3. Awareness: You must know where your partner is at all times. Sometimes, your partner may be out of step. That doesn’’t give you a reason to step on her toe. A good leader is always completely aware of his partner’s position at all times. Of course this applies to the world of business. Traditional businesses, like traditional dancing, do not follow the partnership paradigm. Traditional businesses are hierarchical, and they work better that way. (See ETR Message #297.)

Moreover, in a traditional business, the boss has the right to hire and fire his employees, which makes “being in charge” that much easier. But in business, as in dancing, being in charge is not the end of it. The purpose of business is to provide value in a marketplace for a profit. Doing that requires a great many skills, not the least of which is the skill of leadership.

Leadership means persuading people to follow you. And doing that means you have to know not only what you want to accomplish but how to get there. And you need to know where your employees are at any point in time — not their feet so much (though that’s important), but their heads. Being a good leader means being in charge — and that means you shouldn’’t pretend to be in a partnership when you are not. But it also means doing all the things that a good ballroom dancer does . . . and that takes a lot of practice.