Leadership Lessons from Dance – The Role of the Follower

Often the focus in leadership discussions, both in dance and mainstream, is on what the leader is doing however both the leader and the follower play a significant role in whether the team/partnership can function.  In his 2014 Ted Talk entitled “How to Start a Movement” Derek Silvers talks about leadership lessons from a dancing guy and how important the role of the follower is in making a movement. Like Derek Silvers, I too think there are lessons to be learned from followers as well as a few responsibilities the follower has in order to be able to be truly led. I will start first by describing these responsibilities using Latin partnered dance as an analogy. Then I will share general leadership lessons that can be applied to any leadership relationship.

Don’t Back Lead
Often followers have a tendency to “back lead”. Back leading is when the follower is guiding the direction of the dance from the follower position. They are in a sense leading themselves but making it look like they are being led. Recently as I taught a beginner dance class I challenged the followers in the circle to not listen to the directions the instructor was calling out but rather to solely focus on following whatever the person leading them was communicating for them to do through their visible and physical actions. I noticed that when I don’t set that expectation with the followers they will back lead, whether intentionally or not, to ensure that they are keeping up with the rest of the class. When the follower knows what should be coming next, anticipates moves, do movements with little support or initiation from the leader they are not allowing themselves to be led and doing a disservice to all involved. When a follower back leads they are reinforcing bad habits. The followers do not then learn to listen and respond to what is being asked of them from the leader in front of them. The leaders learn that they can do the bare minimum and still get the desired results rather than actually leading and providing support for the follower to do a movement. The follower has to listen and react to the lead regardless of what others are doing. It is a partnership; if one fails they should fail together and vice versa.

Maintain Frame
An important concept that is difficult to explain, teach, and learn is maintaining one’s frame. Similar to a picture frame, a dancers frame is the boundary that allows the integrity of the space around the dancer to be maintained and protected. Frame is not only about the arms or chest but also about the path from the arms and chest to the rest of the body and how when engaged the whole package moves in unison. A follower maintaining their frame also provides consistency so the leader to know what to expect when engaging the follower to do a movement. If the frame is broken the communication and connection between the follower and leader is also broken and it will be difficult for the two to dance together. Even if the leader does everything “right” it will be difficult to lead a follower who does not have or maintain their frame. The follower has to know how to hold their frame for the partnership to work.

Provide Appropriate Compression & Leverage
In addition to maintaining their frame the follower must also be able to mirror and match the energy and engagement that is being given through the frame by the leader. If this push and pull or leverage and compression is not established then it is difficult for the leader to communicate what is desired and difficult for the follower to understand what is being asked of them in a timely manner. If a follower has “spaghetti” arms whether stiff dry noodles before they are cooked or over cooked wet noodles it will be difficult to lead that follower because the movement will either be resisted if too stiff or collapsed if too loose. It is only when both partners are doing their part that a dance can flow, adapt, and can flourish to its greatest potential.

Here are some of my take-a-ways as it relates generally to leadership:

  1. Both the leader and follower roles are important, difficult in their own ways, necessary, and are dependent on one another to be successful.
  2. Trust is a key component in any relationship and as I mentioned in my Understanding the Needs of Your Partner blog post it is important to communicate respect for each other’s roles. Trust can be demonstrating by not second guessing the other person, not trying to anticipate where they will mess up (or rubbing it in their face when they do), or not trying to do their role for them! The best thing to do is to be encouraging, supportive, patient, and kind. Do your role the best you can, offer to give advise and respect when it is not desired, smile, be silent, and get others involved to offer advise from another perspective (and don’t say I told you so when they affirm what you have said or thought).
  3. It is important for everyone to know their limitations, set boundaries, and hold their own on the team or in the partnership. It is also important to outline the scope of the work being done or the framework of how the work will get done so that everyone is on the same page.
  4. It is important for any relationship to have give and take. A team needs to be able to rely on each member when they are stronger and for others to take a back seat when it is not their area of expertise. This ebb and flow is why partnerships exist.

Remember: Everyone has the potential to lead (and follow)…

*Note: Dancers featured in the photo are Miracle Williams and Nathan Crawford-Wallis from Livy & Betty Alleyne Dance Centre, Barbados, West Indies

**Note: I use the terms “leader” and “follow/follower” without adding gender as all genders/gender expressions can assume either role at any point.

If you liked this blog post please comment and visit others in the series: Leadership Lessons from Dance

18 comments on “Leadership Lessons from Dance – The Role of the Follower

  1. That was so great! And so true. I am sometimes guilty of back leading and it’s a reminder to try to flow with the environment in case directions change.

  2. “it’s so great!…perfect observations well-described, dancing is so fascinating”

  3. Awesome!!

  4. Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I can totally relate. I have been taking salsa classes at Esquina Tango with Sidney Joseph on Monday nights. I have encountered every single item you mention in your blog. I loved the spaghetti arms description, including stiff as an uncooked noodle or soft as an over cooked one. Back leading in class is an ever-present problem, as many of the leads don’t actually know what to do, so the follow fills in as best she can, and it messes with the lead’s ability to learn how to lead.

  6. Dance as a metaphor for leadership is a great way to share leadership lessons. I can’t wait to teach educational leadership again – I will be sure to include your blog!

  7. Orwell Waldon Jacobs

    November 8, 2017 at 10:30 am Reply

    Awesome article. The parallels between Dance and Life are amazing. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Nice job using dance as a metaphor, Dr. Sobers. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Nice 👍 I agree with your piece!

  10. I like, as always, the dance metaphor as a means of maintaining integrity of communication– AWESOME

  11. Another win! Great blog, and so accurate to both dance and leading.

  12. This was a FANTASTIC article. I loved your perspective and how you incorporated dance terminology into the article.

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