I’m off for a quick trip to Montreal to do a one-day facilitation on Individual Contributor Leadership. The idea of the session is, what can individuals in an organization learn from leadership principles that will enhance their ability to productively contribute to their organization’s success? I’m working with people who do not have a legitimated leadership role, that is, people without a manager, director, vice-president, or similar job title.
In this session, I’m teaching three modules: one that has to do with creating a “meeting of the minds” when it comes to intention and accomplishing something together; one that deals with what to do when things don’t happen as they should (which even works when things DO happen as they should); and a section that has to do with truly appreciating and acknowledging someone for their contribution. As I’m preparing for both my session and my salsa class this week, it occurs to me that there are wonderful parallels that I can draw between the world of organizational leadership and the world of dance.
A leader who brings down orders and expects their subordinates to follow them essentially forces their employees to comply with the orders under threat of some punishment. The work (may) get done, but then again, it might not. People in a compliance mindset will look for excuses and justifications for avoiding the work. Similarly, a dance leader who roughly forces their follower into moves beyond their skill level and expertise, may well get the follower to follow. But there is a cost: You might never get another dance with that person for whom the experience was less than enjoyable. You run the risk of physically injuring that person. And, chances are that you, yourself, feel miserable because there is never a dancer who can live up to your “lofty standards,” hence dancing quickly becomes less satisfying for you. Further, a leader who doesn’t listen to his follower – both in an organization and as a dancer – often makes unreasonable demands that only leads to frustration and unpleasantness.
From time to time, things don’t go as planned. (Yes, I know. You’re completely shocked to hear this.) There are some dancers who attempt to correct their partner, just as there are organizational leaders who do the same, often using somewhat similar language—“You’re Doing It Wrong!” This type of correction neither improves the person’s skill nor enhances the experience. Instead, I suggest three key questions: What’s missing? Where can we go from here? And, what can I do to support Your success? On the dance floor, a similar progression is probably the best way to recover from a move that went sideways (when it wasn’t supposed to!). What’s missing? Was it too soft a connection? A lead signal that wasn’t clear? Was the follower “leading herself” and therefore missed the lead cue? Was the element too technically difficult for one or both partners, and thus what was missing was particular training? Or perhaps it was just sufficient practice. Whatever the reason for the errant move, something was missing between the two partners that can be added for the next time. So long as there is awareness of what, actually, was missing, and reflective learning to remediate the missing link, each partner can develop, grow as a dancer, and improve.
Finally, perhaps the most important aspect of the lesson: How to authentically acknowledge another person for who they are being in the moment of accomplishment. This is more than the commonly delivered, “feedback.” Rather, it is recognizing the other person for why what they have done would be important to them in terms of who they aspire to be. Too often – both in a workplace and on the dance floor – we fail to recognize our partner for the experience the two of you created together, and what that co-creation says about the other person. In organizations, authentic acknowledgement is the single, least expensive, most effective motivational tools that exists. In partner dancing, it is probably the best way to enhance your own standing as a dancer in the eyes of those who matter most—your dance partners! Even something as simple as, “Wow! You’ve really improved,” or, “I love what you just did there!” goes a long way.
I always say, salsa is a metaphor for life, and that includes life in the workplace. Whether you are a leader, a follower, an individual contributor, or the CEO, learning lessons from appreciative leadership practice helps to create an engaging experience no matter what the context, even when we…
See you on the dance floor.