When I started dancing Cuban Salsa, I was almost terrified in the thought that I would have to lead my partner on the dance floor where all mistakes were visible to everyone around us. In the dance floor, like in the theatrical or music stage, every mistake is exposed, there is no hiding. This was not only a difficult mental obstacle to overcome. It was also a false verification of my bias that leadership comes naturally to the special ones. But was my assumption right? Are Leadership and Followership really that different?
Despite my limiting beliefs, I continued my effort, put in the hard work, and continuously learned from my mistakes. It took years of classes and hundreds of partners before eventually becoming a confident and capable lead. My whole learning experience was a revelation on what leadership is and how anyone, if they are willing to put the effort, and have the right mentality, can become a leader. Furthermore, it showed me that leadership and followership are both sides of the same coin.
The art of leading and following
I naively used to believe that leading is almost a magical ability for the select few. For instance, I used to think that extroverts have a natural advantage to leadership but as I realised this was a very narrow view of the world.
It is certainly true that some personality types have an internal need to drive. These people naturally gravitate towards dominance and influence (DiSC personality types). But this alone doesn’t make them good leaders. Neither it means that other personality types cannot become exceptional leaders if they put their minds to it.
Both Leadership and Followership are arts, and like any other art, they need to be practiced and mastered. Leadership is not a competition for the loudest or more dominant person. There is a wide spectrum of leaders and followers, who can come from all walks of life and all personality types. The world needs them! So, it is time to let go of leadership and followership stereotypes.
What I learned about Leadership and Followership from Cuban Salsa
In Cuban Salsa there is always a leader and a follower, for the simple reason that someone has to signal to their partner the next set of moves. They cannot both lead as this would create confusion. Neither they can take turns in leading while dancing as this would disrupt their flow.
By tradition in Cuban Salsa, men are usually leaders and women are followers but this is not always the case. It is unfortunate that the role of the follower is so misunderstood. Especially in the West, where sometimes there is too much focus on the gender rather than the role itself.
Followers in Cuban Salsa are not passive or secondary. They actively interpret the signals they receive from their partners and respond based on their experience, personality, creativity, and skills. Quite often, experienced followers can interpret the same move in different ways, and add their own personal flavour. This might be different from what the leaders expect, who have to adapt to their followers as well.
In fact, this is exactly the point. It is an ongoing dance and interplay between two equal partners, who continuously adapt to each other. The leader’s role is to provide an initial direction and then interact with the follower through a call-and-response approach.
Dancing is a dialogue between two intelligent individuals, it is not a monologue.
This is why I love the Cuban dancing philosophy. It is a partnership of equals with distinct roles. One leads, one responds, no-one dominates. The outcome is a reflection of how well the two partners complement each other in an ongoing interplay of styles.
In just one hour of dance, you can experience so many different leadership and followership styles.
Leading is difficult. It takes a lot of trial and error to find your style and balance with your partner. Every time a lead starts the dance it is like starting from a blank canvas and drawing a beautiful picture that will move others, and fulfil their expectations.
It all starts with holding your partner’s hand and signalling your intention, in an unambiguous and simple way. Put too much tension in your arms, and your partner will resist hard. Put too little tension, and your partner will not understand where to go next. Signal to the wrong direction or at the wrong moment and it will create confusion. It all requires the right balance and it takes time to master it.
Leaders come in all sizes and styles but some leadership styles can be particularly problematic.
This leader wants to be in charge, is aggressive and does not allow any autonomy to their partner. Usually, they operate on the assumption that their partner is just a doll that they can pull around. I am not sure why but it seems that some people think that leadership is about giving instructions and if something goes wrong blame others. They expect no other response apart from what they already have in their mind.
This is a mental shortcut that I will never understand. How is it possible to think that different people with completely different personalities and level of experience and creativity will react to your signals in a fully predictable way?
In the past, I have heard many ladies complaining about guys who tend to pull their arms too hard and being aggressive. There is nothing worse than a leader that force their will on others and behaves as if others were mindless bodies. This type of leader usually lacks the empathy to connect with others and assumes that the only way to lead is through force.
This is similar to the command and control leadership style found in large organisations. People want to feel respected, engaged, and cared for. There is nothing worse than someone micromanaging them and giving them orders.
On the other end of the spectrum, we find the type of leader I call the “Ambiguous” or weak leader.
It is difficult for a follower to understand to which direction to go or what move to perform when the leader is unclear in their communication. Most of the times they leave the follower guessing, which creates all kinds of confusion and frustration.
Even worse, when the follower has a strong personality it leads to a very awkward situation where the follower ends up taking the lead. To put it simply, a weak leader that doesn’t provide any direction is not really leading.
Another type of leader, that tends to be irritating to most partners is the “Teacher”. And by this I don’t mean the actual dance instructor but rather amateur leaders who constantly act like authorities. They love correcting their partners and showing them the “right” way of doing things. Unfortunately, they are terrible leaders and all that they achieve is to disengage and annoy their partners, who they treat as if they were toddlers.
In dancing, like in many other arts, people tend to overestimate their level of experience and abilities. According to the Dunning-Kruger effect, people that are not as experienced tend to be overconfident while those that are highly experienced tend to have doubts as they can appreciate the limit of their abilities.
The problem with overconfident, inexperienced leaders is that they think they know more than they do and when a mistake happens they act as if it is always their partner’s fault. The more they correct their partners the more they keep doing it, to the point that a social dance may turn into a class!
This type of leader is focused on themselves. No-one else matters, their partners are merely the supporting cast that makes them look good.
I remember that every Tuesday night Jose would show up, dressed up like a Cuban rockstar with his colourful bandana. Once the party started he would dance on his own, showcasing his rumba moves. He would never show any interest in dancing with others. When he did, the ladies would just end up being his personal audience while performing his solo moves. This type of leader is not really a leader but rather a poser trying to attract attention and popularity. They may be fun for a party but better to be avoided in all other circumstances.
Followers in Cuban Salsa are not passive or secondary. In fact, sometimes they can be the protagonists, either by interpreting moves in their own unique way or even by taking the dance to a place they want. Leadership and followership are highly coupled! However, being a follower is not easy. You will have to be able to trust your partner to guide you even if you don’t know them very well. Leaders that are not trusted they struggle to lead.
Depending on their personality type and the circumstances, there can be many different types of followers.
Professor of Harvard University, Barbara Kellerman, who has studied extensively Followership, describes five types of followers: isolates (completely detached), bystanders (observers only), participants (engaged), activists (who feel strongly and act accordingly, both with and against leaders), and diehards (deeply devoted). Although Professor Kellerman studied very different groups of people, there are some universal behavioural traits when it comes to followers.
From my dancing experience, I have come across similar behaviours as well. My list of the different types of followers I have encountered on the dance floor are: the detached, the activists, and the teachers.
Some followers can be completely detached. Perhaps they don’t care about you or the dance, perhaps they are tired. Usually, when you dance with them you cannot feel any resistance coming from their arms or body. It is as if there is no energy or soul to the dance, With limited reactions to your actions, it is impossible to dance.
Others always expect everything from the leader as if they have nothing to do with the dance. I remember once a lady who was just robotically reacting, not really engaging or providing any input from her side. Afterwards, she told me that her role was just to follow whatever I was doing. Unfortunately, this is a limited perception of the role and impact a follower can have.
On the other hand some followers are too much focused on themselves and their styling. There is nothing wrong with styling but when this dominates the dance, then there is detachment. The dialogue and the connection between the couple breaks down.
A detached person, being it a leader or a follower, doesn’t have any effect on others.
Occasionally, there are experienced followers that are too eager to show their skills and move ahead of the leader. This usually happens when the follower understand what move is coming up next and jump into it even before the leader actually leads them into it. This reversal of roles can lead to big confusion as the follower is already a step ahead from where the leads expects her to be. Furthermore, the follower may apply a lot of tension to the opposite direction of where the lead wants to go, creating some really awkward situations. The couple may end up looking more like they are fighting rather than dancing.
I call this type of followers the activists or leaders in disguise. They are experienced, they feel strongly about what they want to do and act with or without the leader.
In other cases, some followers are so devoted to the “right” way of dancing, that they will stop the dance in the middle of song to teach the leader how it is “really” done. I had this happening to me a couple of times and it was really awkward. My partner at the time felt so self-righteous that it was impossible to let her see that actually not everything has to be perfect or based on her version of reality.
For a leader, there can be nothing more embarrassing than having his partner stopping him in the middle of the dance floor to teach him the move. This has never and will never work, especially in a party. There is a space and place for teaching. Even if the move is poorly executed, the solution is not to stop the dance but to keep going, unless of course there is a serious reason, such as the leader being clumsy.
Unfortunately, when it comes to people acting as teachers, it can apply to both followers and leaders. I think what teachers don’t realise is that they overestimate how much they know and see their understanding as the only way to understand and execute a move.
Leadership and Followership – Two sides of the same coin
They say that it takes two to Tango. I say that it takes two to Salsa.
Leaders do not exist in a vacuum while followers are not mindless bots that just follow instructions. Their relationship is highly interdependent and ever-changing. One cannot exist without the other, and they both complement each other. They are like two sides of the same coin.
A leader may set the initial direction but then the followers can take the lead and influence the direction, flipping the coin. There is no distinct advantage between the two roles although it may seem like it. I have had many times followers who would signal me what they wanted to do and I would do that. The leader needs to interpret the subtle signals of the follower and adjust their dance accordingly. The dance really works, when both partners bring out their personalities, styles and preferences and create a greater whole.
Leading in business, like in dancing, is an art that takes time, patience and a lot of work to master. No individual or team are the same. An approach that works in one case may not fit in another, despite being a best approach. Learning how to lead entails continuous trial and error, feedback, reflection and adjustment. The idea of the natural born leader, who will intuitively know what to do in all circumstances is a myth, which prevents many people in leadership and followership positions from reaching their potential.