Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Leadership Lessons from Tango - it's not about the steps

Tango is more than just a dance – it’s an art form that relies on partnership and communication.

Leadership consultant Sue Cox visited the University of Cumbria’s Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) to share her experience of the dance – and how she realised it forms a rich metaphor for leader/follower relationships in the wider world.

Sue Cox speaking at IFLAS

For the uninitiated, tango is a form of dance with origins in Argentina and Uruguay. One dancer, (usually a man) is the leader while the second (usually a woman) follows. Tango absolutely rests on leading and following. But the dance can only reach the greatest heights of expression when there’s a non-hierarchical relationship between the leader and the follower. Communication, co-operation, understanding, intuition and versatility from both dancers is essential.

It’s not about the steps, says Sue: “Just doing the steps isn’t dancing. The 'magic' that turns it into a dance rests on other things. We talk about communication and leadership as a dance, so what can we learn from the tango that can relate to our experience of leading and following?”

Sue discovered tango around 12 years ago and her passion for the dance eventually led her to Buenos Aires to connect with it at its source.

She said: “I went to Buenos Aires thinking that after three months I’d have the tango nailed. But when I got there I realised very quickly that everything I’d been doing was wrong or at least unhelpful. And so I began a process of unlearning lots of different habits and ways of thinking. The question then became what am I going to put in its place?”

Many of the participants in the session were members of the first cohort of students on the new Postgraduate Certificate in Sustainable Leadership offered by IFLAS at the University of Cumbria Ambleside campus.

Sue said: “Those of you on the course are maybe at the beginning of this journey of unlearning and relearning and making connections between unlikely things.”

Let’s spend some time immersing ourselves in the metaphor to discover what it can teach us about how we can connect to ourselves and with others as both leaders and followers.

Inhabit your own body

Gaining self-awareness is important to successful
dancing and to success in other leader/follower relationships

Sue told her participants: “Notice what goes on in your body in an unconscious way. The initial invitation is to become more mindful. One of the things that became really clear to me is that you can only do this dance if you inhabit your own body, rather than trying to copy someone else.”

Leader or follower, it’s crucial that you’re self-aware.

Use the ground

Guests focus on their relationship with the ground

Next Sue encouraged participants to focus their thoughts on the floor and to become conscious of the way they use it in their steps.

She says: “In Tango the floor is fundamental. It gives us length and power to our stride and allows us to move in more deliberate way.”

Back to the metaphor. What does the floor represent when you think about leader/follower relationships?  

Engage your core

Prof Jem Bendell (left) takes part on an exercise
designed to help dancers discover their core

In tango, engaging your core brings balance, poise, and the ability to move responsively while controlling your own momentum and direction. Typically we are lazy - we don't use our core and many of us don't even know where or what it is. It takes work and practice to change that.


Leading and following must be partnership to be effective

You’ve learned to inhabit your body, you’re aware of your relationship with the ground, and you’ve engaged your core.

Only now are you ready to connect with a dance partner. The sensation is one of 'embrace', not a stiff, formal hold. You're seeking to make a connection with the other person, bringing attentiveness to enable a flow of communication between you.

Sue said: "For followers particularly, this can entail a change of mindset; your job is to be responsive and involved, not to be a floppy weight hanging off your leader and using their momentum. For it to work, both leader and follower need to be fully present and responsible, with different but equal roles."

Project intention

Sue demonstrates the need for understanding
and co-operation between dance partners

In tango, unlike many dances, there are no set step patterns. The dance is completely improvised, moment by moment. It relies on the leader communicating their intentions to the follower, and on the follower responding.

Sue said: “It’s a mistake to think that the follower is passive. All the leader can do is to issue an invitation to the follower. The follower 'listens' and moves in response. The leader 'hears' and then in turn responds - and so on."

“Projecting intention is about an intensity, saying: 'We're going here'. It means focusing your energy and conveying that intention with your whole being.”

The partnership formed will produce unique results and the quality will depend on the success of the communication.

Express the music

When a pair connect and express the
music together, the results can be magical

Once you’ve connected with your partner, you’re able to listen to the music and express it together. That's the ultimate aim, finding your way around the floor with the other dancers and responding to what the music calls from you.

Meaning and metaphor

The thought-provoking session sparked lively discussion

So what does this teach us about leadership? The metaphor leads us to consider all kinds of issues, like the relationship between leaders and followers, the gender politics of leadership, the need for trust between leaders and followers, and how we learn through deeper connection with ourselves rather than mimicking appearances.

What can we learn from this and how can it influence our practice? 

Sue said: "Part of the answer is surely that we need to get beyond 'focusing on the steps', searching for formulaic patterns and easy solutions."

Keep the metaphor in mind to explore issues afresh, begin to make new connections and draw your own conclusions…

  • Prof Jem Bendell said: “Sue’s session on the tango fits in perfectly with the educational ethos of IFLAS. We believe in the power of experiential learning to help our students gain deeper levels of understanding of the concepts we teach. The insights that Sue has communicated could not have been taught in a lecture. This approach goes right back to our roots in 1892, when Charlotte Mason founded our campus in the Lake District and used this way of teaching and learning. It’s a tradition IFLAS is proud to uphold.”

  • For more details of the PGC in Sustainable Leadership and other courses offered by IFLAS, visit www.cumbria.ac.uk/iflas