The Dance

There’s an improv exer­cise about lead­er­ship I learned some years ago from actor, Bar­ry Callen, in Madi­son, Wis­con­sin. Although I’ve lost track of Bar­ry, he impressed me with his capa­bil­i­ty to help peo­ple learn about some­thing com­plex from some­thing sim­ple, phys­i­cal, and fun. Here’s the exercise:

Two peo­ple stand face to face. In the first part of the exer­cise one per­son puts their hands up flat in front of him or her (as if say­ing stop to the oth­er per­son). The oth­er per­son “mir­rors” this move­ment with­out touch­ing the oth­er per­son­’s hands — just leav­ing a lit­tle space between the two sets of hands. The first per­son then moves his or her hands and the sec­ond con­tin­ues to mir­ror, keep­ing up with the first. There is no talk­ing, or telling, or feed­back between the peo­ple — its all kines­thet­ic. This pro­duces a kind of silent dance of hands in which one per­son leads and the oth­er fol­lows. After a cou­ple min­utes, the pair is asked to switch roles. Now the sec­ond per­son leads and the first fol­lows. In the final part of the exer­cise the pair is asked to silent­ly switch the roles back and forth so that one leads for awhile and then the oth­er picks up his or her turn and takes the lead. Through minute sig­nals, such as eye con­tact, or slow­ing the motion, the pairs learn to let the lead­ing and fol­low­ing to trans­fer back and forth between the pair.

Debrief­ing the exer­cise is enjoy­able, and usu­al­ly con­tains some seri­ous hooks. For some peo­ple, lead­ing is more com­fort­able, for oth­ers fol­low­ing. For some, this is a rel­a­tive­ly sedate exer­cise with min­i­mal move­ment, for oth­ers it brings back the games of child­hood (such as pad­dy­cake), and for oth­ers it feels like a com­pet­i­tive game of stand-up twister. Some­times the lead­ers have made it easy to fol­low them; some­times they have made it hard — such as by jerk­ing a hand out unpre­dictably or by turn­ing their back to the part­ner or cre­at­ing wild, hilar­i­ous tan­go move­ments. Some­times the silent switch­ing back and forth is dis­cov­ered to have an awk­ward­ness to it — I know it’s my turn only because you have com­plete­ly stopped or you look frus­trat­ed — or because I have sim­ply refused to fol­low you and if you want to play you now have to fol­low me. There’s usu­al­ly a lot of laugh­ter in a room of peo­ple doing the exer­cise and dur­ing the debrief­ing itself because it calls up sim­i­lar­i­ties to dai­ly sit­u­a­tions and relationships.

Of course what the exer­cise is all about is the dance of lead­ing and fol­low­ing in any giv­en rela­tion­ship: the dance of ini­ti­a­tion and response, speak­ing and lis­ten­ing, giv­ing and receiv­ing. It could be about any kind of part­ner­ship between peo­ple or depart­ments or orga­ni­za­tions and cus­tomers, high­light­ing how sit­u­a­tion­al and flu­id the flow of lead­er­ship real­ly is. Some­times it calls up for peo­ple in for­mal roles a sense that no one ever real­ly fol­lows them or no one ever real­ly wants to take over some part of the lead­er­ship them­selves. Some­times it calls up the feel­ing that no one has ever let me lead — or that I have ever let myself lead.

The exer­cise reminds me of a def­i­n­i­tion of lead­er­ship by Bruce Payne at Duke Uni­ver­si­ty. He says: “For me, lead­er­ship emerges when groups and indi­vid­u­als face prob­lems and dan­gers, and as they are involved in con­flict and dis­agree­ment about sig­nif­i­cant change.” Which means to me that a lead­er­ship role is played at the moment that a new sit­u­a­tion­al demand comes into being, where there’s sud­den ten­sion, when some­thing needs to hap­pen, the answers aren’t obvi­ous, and some­one, any­one says, “Hey, this is ridicu­lous. We’ve got to do some­thing about this!” Sud­den­ly it is not about doing busi­ness as usu­al, but busi­ness as unusu­al. In the mir­ror­ing exer­cise, the impe­tus sim­ply comes through the instruc­tions and the will­ing­ness of the crowd to par­tic­i­pate. In real orga­ni­za­tions, it comes from the straight up demand for a new kind of deliv­er­able of what­ev­er kind — whether it is mak­ing sure the mail gets on the right truck this time or a life hang­ing in the bal­ance is saved by a sur­gi­cal team, or a new strate­gic direc­tion is mess­i­ly ham­mered out by a col­lec­tion of con­tentious vice pres­i­dents. It comes from cir­cum­stances that say “we can’t do this the way we used to.” And the dance begins.

How eas­i­ly that dance, over time, breaks down. And yet, if we allow it, how eas­i­ly it also reforms itself in end­less­ly new ways.

man and dolphin

When the lead­ing and the fol­low­ing fit togeth­er well and all the ten­sions are just one more set of move­ments toward an art­ful, inno­v­a­tive res­o­lu­tion, when we talk not just about the goal but about the dance itself, when there is col­or and form and peo­ple respond to one anoth­er’s unique style and skills and expe­ri­ence with admi­ra­tion; lead­ing, mir­ror­ing, respond­ing, then such a cool thing comes into being — I know you’ve seen it — called collaboration.

One Comment

  • Inter­est­ing exer­cize. Sounds like it might be worth a try. I’ve also been faci­nat­ed by the role of leader in ball­room dance.


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