Five Things Tango Taught Me About Leadership

Valentango 2011 with JuanWhen you spend most of your career leading, it’s hard to go back to following. But the truth is, it’s not an either/or proposition. I wonder. Is it even possible to be a good leader if you’re not also a good follower?

I’ve spent a lot of years leading teams in corporations. And, I’ve had the opportunity to work for different types of leaders. But some of the most valuable things I know about leadership, I learned “dancing backwards in high heels”.

It all started with a different kind of to “To Do” list.

One afternoon in 2005, I was sitting in my office feeling overwhelmed, discouraged, and, honestly, quite angry! An IT Project Manager in a multi-million dollar corporation, the very large whiteboard in my office was filled with workflow diagrams, resource and equipment requirements, a roughed-in project timeline, and an issues list. My team and I had just completed an estimate for a very large data warehouse project. And that afternoon the VP of our division had thrown it back at me without discussion or explanation, demanding that I reduce the cost estimate by at least 50% “before I went home that night”. Of course, no requirements could be eliminated or scaled back.

I sat there staring at my whiteboard, and fuming (not for the first time) over the fact that this VP had no appreciation for my skills and no respect for the expertise of my team. All he wanted was a dollar figure that would please his boss, the CEO.

It was late in the day. Some of the team had already gone home. The work on my whiteboard represented a couple of weeks of research and analysis by experienced professionals. I wasn’t about to call them back in. They’d done a good job. And, for what our VP was asking, we may as well have thrown darts at a dartboard. What was I to do?

I took a deep breath and let it out loudly. I got up from my chair, picked up my eraser, and thoroughly cleaned the whiteboard. Then, way up high in big, bold letters I wrote “To Do”. Among the many things I listed that day were:

  • Walk on the Great Wall of China
  • Finish My Novel
  • Dance a Tango in Buenos Aires

I had the knowledge and the resources for the first two. But if I intended to dance in Buenos Aires, I was going to have to learn how to tango. Within a few days I had joined the local tango club and started taking lessons. I had no way of knowing at the time how much I was about to learn about leadership.

It’s all about the connection

Argentine Tango is danced in close embrace. The two dancers’ bodies come together at a strategic point (depending on the height of each dancer) through which all the information about intention and direction is communicated. No words required. It’s a beautiful thing to experience when partners achieve good connection and communication. When they don’t, there can be awkward mistakes, stepped on toes, disagreements and even bruises. Sometimes real bruises. Sometimes just to the ego.

As a woman, it was my job to follow, which also meant dancing backwards. It was hard! I was used to leading, driving, being in charge. Fortunately, my first teacher understood that. He chuckled patiently as I struggled to relax and give up the need to be in control. It didn’t happen over night, but the instructor was forgiving, and the music was intoxicating! So I stuck with it, even when my friend (also a female manager) gave up and dropped out.

Here are a few things I learned about leadership, while dancing backwards:

#1. Listen with your whole heart: Music has a beat. You and I can listen to the same song and feel the music differently. In tango, the lead gets to interpret the beat and decide how he wants to utilize it. Through the connection, the follower “understands” how the leader interprets the music and moves according to his direction.

In tango, as in business, there are different kinds of leaders. Some give clear and strong direction. Some are even a little pushy. It might not be as much fun to follow the pushy ones, but there’s no mistaking where they want you to go.

Other leaders are gentle and subtle. The connection is good and the direction feels more like a conversation.

Both ways of leading are valid. But every time you change partners, you need to adjust. If you want to tango, you have to listen carefully to the leader’s style and respond accordingly. And if you are the one in the lead, you must be aware of each follower’s experience and skill level.

#2. Own your missteps: In Argentine tango, it is traditional to change partners after each tanda, a set of three to five songs. So everyone dances with everyone. Sometimes you get a competent, experienced leader. Sometimes you get a novice, who steps on your toes.

When the leader makes a mistake, he should own it, apologize, and start again. Same goes for the follower. Nobody’s perfect. Acknowledge what went wrong and what was learned. Then agree to try again. No blame, just a desire to do better next time.

#3. Take responsibility for yourself: Developing a strong core makes you a better follower. Even though you are taking direction from the leader, it is important to stand on your own two feet. Don’t lean too heavily on the leader. The key to a successful dance is good communication and collaboration.

You are each responsible for your own moves. As the follower, you can help the lead become a better dancer. But you’re not responsible for his success.

#4. Trust: It’s okay to let someone else take charge. In tango, the woman dances backwards. She can’t see where she’s going. Her partner could run her into another couple, or even a wall! The thing is, she needs to realize that the lead has no more interest in getting hurt than she does.

It’s the leader’s job to guide and protect the follower. So, trust that the leader wants the best outcome for both of you.

Of course, if you (as the follower) continually find yourself in awkward, embarrassing, or painful situations, it may be time to change partners. This applies to tango and business.

#5. Not everyone has the same goals: Some leaders just want to dance, to be social, and enjoy the music. They may be satisfied with the most basic steps. And that’s okay. In fact, some of the best dances I’ve ever had are with these people! They’re easy-going, dependable, and fun.

Other leaders push themselves to learn the most difficult, showiest steps. They want to be seen and admired. They may be demanding, impatient, and always “right”. Even when they screw up, somehow it becomes your fault.

At El Triangulo NYC
Dancing tango at El Triángulo in Manhattan.

You’ve probably hear that – “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.”

The truth is that neither of them could have done it without the other. Yes, it really does take two to tango!

So perhaps the best that any of us can do is maintain as much grace as possible. Sometimes you’ll have an enjoyable dance with an easy partner. But the demanding one might challenge you to take some risks, learn new things, and ultimately succeed at something you never even dreamed you were capable of.

In tango and in business, the more we practice communication and connection, the better we perform. In order to get the best possible results, both parties have to be willing to learn from their mistakes, and be committed to the success of the other.

8 thoughts on “Five Things Tango Taught Me About Leadership

  1. This is a very interesting concept. I have always wanted to learn some sort of ballroom dance with my spouse, but part of me has been afraid to even give it a try because I know it means I need to learn to follow. I like the way you made the application to business, and it seems quite fitting. Thanks for sharing your expertise and insight, Shirley. It was very fun to read. – Amy

    Liked by 1 person

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