At this sixth annual iteration of the dance competition called “Take the Lead,” the energy level and enthusiasm among the thirty young couples filled the host gymnasium in a palpable way. Frankly I was both impressed and intimidated, having never been asked to judge dancers. Fortunately, the coordinator and originator of this program, Suzy Di Santo, said my specific role was to judge the leadership style and sense of relationship between the dance partners. The other judges would handle the footwork, rhythm, and style. Initially puzzled, after the first minute of the opening waltz, I could see clearly what Suzy was after. And then, watching and empathetically feeling the nervous energy and focused intensity of these fifth-graders, the floodgates opened in this aging brain.
“Take the Lead” – this competition all of a sudden brought to mind my favorite metaphor for successful leadership: dance. Did these young couples manifest, in both countenance and composure, respect for and connection with each other? Were they in “the flow” together, balancing and blending both leading and following? Suddenly, for me, all of these fifth-graders were engaged in an activity which easily could benefit them the rest of their lives as leader-followers in-the-making.
Of the multiple hundreds of books mentioned in this FCBJ column during the past two decades, one of my favorites would still be The Dance of Leadership: The Art of Leading in Business, Government, and Society by Robert and Janet Denhardt (both professors in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University). Their book still impresses me as one of the most singular, astute, and thought-provoking treatises on leadership I have yet encountered. The art of leadership is their topic – and dance becomes the medium, the metaphor by which they share their message, informed, informative, insightful, and inspirational.
In composing The Dance of Leadership, the Denhardts interviewed over thirty nationally known artists, musicians, and dancers, and twenty-five leaders in business, government, non- profit organizations, the military, higher education, and the world of sports. They then brilliantly interweave the personal comments from the interviewees with their own reading from and thoughts on the literature on dance, music, organizational dynamics and the art of leadership.
As readers of this column know, over the past decade we have discussed leaders, literally and figuratively, as learners, readers, coaches, symphony conductors, jazz musicians, followers, athletes, meaning-makers, and other metaphorical manifestations. Moreover, the thematic motifs of this column have been leadership and: trust, integrity, open communication, vulnerability, decision making by informed intelligence conjoined with improvisational intuition, flexibility and creativity in the context of structure and discipline, and all of the paradoxical approaches which arise out of that dynamic between spontaneity and structure, serendipity and planning, freedom and discipline. The beauty of the Denhardts' book rests in their coverage of all of these topics, approached uniquely and astutely in the context of the philosophy and practice of dance.
I doubt if the dancing fifth-graders were aware of what dancing could mean for and bring to them. Someday they might.
Watching these young dancers, one could see in their eyes and body language both joy and fear, the sense of visibility and vulnerability, the challenge of leading and following without blaming or faulting the “other.” As they danced, they grew – and so did my respect for all of them.
In reading The Dance of Leadership, one encounters this marvelous quote: “We must be willing to take risks, committed to the experience, and ready to be vulnerable and open to the self-discovery that is a natural product of the process. We must be willing to listen to others and to be generous with them. An active balance of self-fulfillment and response to others' needs has to be maintained. Basically we need the courage of our own impulses and responses qualified only by a healthy concern for the people we are working with.” The Denhardts share the fact that these insightful thoughts come not from a book on leadership, but from an introductory dance text, A Sense of Dance (1996) by Constance Schrader.
And so it goes throughout this entire book – linkages, connections, interweavings between dance and leadership, all done in a way to make one understand the obvious truth or reality of the linkage, while also thinking, “Why did I not see that before?” For example, most of us have had the experience of walking into a room, an office, a restaurant, a bank, a small business or a large corporation and sensing that things were going well, there was a good “feel,” a productive “flow.” In The Dance of Leadership we learn why and how that positive interaction of time, space, and energy comes to characterize a dance performance which touches or moves us – just as that same interaction will reflect effective leadership institutionally or organizationally.
These fifth-graders were appropriately focused on their partners, their classmates, their friends and family in the audience, and, of course, the flow of their feet and their bodies. Simultaneously, though, they were literally and figuratively engaged with and experiencing the art of leadership. So, my heartfelt thanks to them. May they follow and lead meaningfully for the rest of their lives. They were – are – all winners.
Dr. Joel Jones is President Emeritus of Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.