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Real Leaders Waltz

Hands-On Learning

Real Leaders Waltz

How ballroom dancing can improve leadership skills.

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Leadership

If you want to become a successful business leader, learn to waltz -- or tango, fox trot, salsa. You’ll develop charm and style, yes, but also a surprisingly career-relevant takeaway: leadership skills.

The signature roles adopted in ballroom dance -- those of leader and follower -- require a skill set that is widely applicable in the workplace, according to Joe Weiss, a management professor at Bentley University and ballroom dance enthusiast.

There are powerful themes common to both fields, says Weiss. And he should know. He’s earned a bronze (intermediate level) status in the art form as through lessons at the Fred Astaire Dance Studios in Belmont, Mass.

On a recent morning, his students from a graduate-level leadership class learned about those parallels out on the dance floor. To onlookers, the class may have resembled an awkward junior high dance. But, in fact, it was a powerful intellectual exercise.

As Earl Batol, co-owner of the dance studio, walked them through the steps -- “left foot forward, a-walk, a-walk, a-side, together” -- the students did their best to take in business lessons through mind and body and had fun doing so.

Here’s a taste of what learning ballroom dancing can teach you about leadership skills:
 

  1. A Firm Grasp of Job Expectations Is as Key in the Ballroom as it Is in the Boardroom
    To succeed in any endeavor, you must be clear about work tasks and expectations, as well as your own goals and responsibilities. And, in turn, what is required of the people you lead.

    In ballroom dance, performers can’t succeed if they don’t understand their roles in relation to each other and the nature of the dance. Within set parameters, the leader decides how they will move: the direction, the timing, the rhythm. Followers are expected to mirror the leader. Successful leaders make confident and masterful choices by knowing what must be done and by whom.
     
  2. Relate to Your Employees as Smoothly as You Would a Dance Partner
    In any leadership position, you must know how to communicate with your employees and tell them what you want in a direct and persuasive manner. And, as with ballroom dancing, body language and movement is very important. (Leading by example and being ‘all in’ may have come from ballroom dancing!)

    If the lead dancer in the foxtrot, for instance, fails to articulate with body movement what must be done, the dance falls apart. The beauty of the movement is realized only if the leader possesses a high level of communication skills. Spoken and non-verbal communication, such as body language, is the foundation on which success in dance, as in enterprise, is made possible.

    “Teaching an individual how to lead well is one of the greatest challenges,” says Jacqueline Keating, a lead teacher at the dance studio, who joined in the lessons. “It takes so many things: you must know the rules and develop a sensitive awareness of the other dancer. Followers need strong leadership -- they get upset if the leader is not leading.”

    She believes that other dances (jazz, modern, hip hop) are easier to learn because leading another person gracefully, a ballroom dance requirement, is such a difficult task.

    “It’s easier to ask an individual to lead themselves,” she shares. “It takes it to another level if you can lead others.”
     
  3. Learn to Draw Out the Best in a Follower -- Both Dance Partners and Co-Workers
    In any undertaking, you must mentor those you lead if you want them to be in synch. The follower’s role cannot be minimized. As has been said about Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire’s dance partner: She had to do everything he did, only backwards and in high heels.

    Lead dancers in the ballroom, as in business, must act with fairness and seek to heighten the performance of followers. By example, you teach those whom you lead to act with a sense of control and balance. From you, they learn to navigate simple and complex movements on the dance floor. You make room for them to make beautiful lines.


Ballroom dance teaches you business leadership skills with a cool practicality, even if you’re not a natural on the floor, says Sanjay S. Patil, who is currently getting an MBA and a master’s degree in Marketing Analytics.
 

“I was truly amazed by the way it kept me engaged. I am terrified of dancing, but then I realized it wasn't as much about dancing as it was about leadership brains.”

MBA student Theresa Hopkins agrees, saying there’s an established correlation between ballroom dancing and leadership, but hitting the dance floor makes it real.

By approaching the lesson in an open and flexible manner, she learned the moves -- and how to lead well. She and her partner communicated during each step and their consequent simpatico allowed them to “take more risks because we had each other's back -- literally and figuratively.”

 

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