Katy Sherman

Senior Director Software Engineering, Premier Inc.

A couple of months ago my husband and I signed up for a few tango lessons at a local studio. Well, one thing for sure, we didn’t become the world’s best dancers. But through the dance, I learned a beautiful lesson in leadership. Or rather, the opposite of leadership – the art and joy of being a follower.

Continue reading to learn about simple principles that apply everywhere in life and at work, that will help you become a better follower and also a better leader.

Social tango is danced in clubs and studios all around the world. It’s a dance of close embrace, tender connection, and quiet understanding. If you’re picturing a passionate artistic performance in which the partners look away from each other, that’s a different tango.

Traditionally tango is danced by a man and a woman. Today the distinction is not very important, but what still matters is the fact that two people dance two different dances, one by a leader, and another by a follower. And yet, they do it together in a perfectly coordinated unison.

As I was learning the lady’s steps, several things struck me as fascinating. First, the follower almost always moves backward. She cannot see where she goes, so she can basically close her eyes and be mesmerized by the music (which a lot of people do). She fully trusts her partner (the leader) to create a path on a crowded dance floor, away from other couples, walls, and furniture. For some reason, our path inevitably led into a corner full of stacked chairs.

Second, even though the dancers hold each other very closely, they don’t lean on each other, each person fully stable and perfectly balanced without their partner’s support.

Third, they communicate without words. There’s no choreography. The entire dance is an improvisation, created by the leader on the fly, as he’s listening to the music and navigating his partner across the floor. The follower has no idea what dance she will be dancing. And yet, the understanding between two good dancers is amazing. They communicate by slight shifts of their weight, sending clear messages and making sure the partner understands their intentions.

And the most unexpected discovery about being a follower was that she is, in fact, the most important person in this dance.

You know how we always want to be leaders? We start teaching kids about leadership as soon as they enter preschool as if it’s the most important role in the world. Nobody teaches us to be followers. Or to appreciate followers. Or to even see them for what the truly are.

But watch this video (and by the way, this is what social tango looks like, not that clumsy walking my spouse and I were doing). https://youtu.be/7-i1glazW_I

Gender roles aside, in this 3-minute dance, the leader is a dark blob, carefully moving around the dance floor. He watches the crowd and figures out a safe path. He listens to the music beat and initiates the steps. He shapes an outline of the dance by suggesting the direction to his partner, the follower.

Because it is really her dance. It is her grace, musicality, and beautiful footwork that we can’t take our eyes off. All we see is her lovely face, graceful arms, strong back, beautiful legs, elegant shoes. She creates the dance, she lives in the music, while he builds a safe space for her to be her best. He is modest, she is a show-off. She respects his vision, and together they co-create, keep each other balanced and grounded, and allow each other to fully express themselves.

We always want to be leaders, but let’s not forget that the real fun is in being a follower. Only as followers we actually create something meaningful. As leaders, we only suggest the direction and make sure the route is clear and safe. Then we stand a little to the side and let everybody see what a beautiful dance our followers have created.

The truth is, in life and at work, we are always both leaders and followers. To be a good leader, we have to understand what it means to be a great follower. But most of all, we should take a moment and appreciate the joy and fun of being a follower. The freedom to create and generate ideas. An abundance of opportunities to turn ideas into reality. A chance to get into the zone, focus and, work. The sense of accomplishment in seeing things getting done.