Tango as a Leadership Metaphor for the New Way of Work

by Susanne Burgstaller

In Tango leader and follower improvise together on an equal footing. Solution focused leaders do the same which fits with the new Way of Work.

Some years ago I took my first steps in a dance called the Argentine tango. Three months later, having participated in the Solution-Focused tango weekend, I was hooked. Hours of tango classes, half a meter of tango books and CDs, and hundreds of dances later I am even more fascinated and perplexed. Not only by the music, the history, the embrace, the social arena, but also by the degree of difficulty, the sense of friction, and the tensions generated in my mind about topics such as leader-, and followership, embodiment, solution focus, or positive relations.

What can the Argentine tango teach us about Solution Focused Leadership?

In one tango lesson I was complaining about the fact that I always needed to dance the man´s tango, never my own. My dance teacher Bennie Bartels said to me:

„Dance your own tango, and I will support you!“

„Wow!“ I thought. This was the most solution-focused thing I had ever heard from a dance teacher.

„Dance my own tango!!! What is that?“ Having complained about not being able to dance it, I had never envisaged, let alone experienced what “my own tango” might actually be. With Bennie´s help during that first dance lesson I got a sense of it. With his expert help my own tango could begin to show its head, and I got an impression that with time it might gradually unfold and bloom.

This is very comparable to what a solution-focused leader does: awakening a sense of possibility, eliciting signs of the preferred future, creating awareness of what the other person actually wants, engendering a sense of being empowered, and doing all this subtly, attentively and expertly.

Yes, we do lead in our conversations, though we do it „from one step behind“ and in a way that supports the other person´s very own resources.

So, what else did I learn from that experience? A truly skilled leader can work beautifully with a beginner. Doing this requires skill, patience, discipline, modesty, concentration and adaptability – all qualities required from a solution-focused leader. What she does is to elicit - even from a beginner - their very own contributions to the work, by leaning in and really listening, by being very attentive and attuned to every movement, being prepared to accept it as a resource and to make something of it. What a wonderful experience that is for a follower, and what enormous skill and patience it requires from the leader!

Unlearning comes first – but how?

Almost 25 years ago I was a ballroom dancer which taught me a number of skills and routines some of which to my surprise my body still remembered. Did these skills still stand me in good stead now, dancing the Argentine tango? No, they did not. Some of them were positively disruptive, leading to the fact that I toppled my very expert partner over, with both of us landing on the floor. (Thankfully Bennie is very agile and has a good sense of humour!)

It became clear to me that I needed to "unlearn" many practices - a challenge for many organisational members and leaders, indeed for any human being. We are all alike in preferring our comfortable routines. I needed to address these routines in order to become a follower that my leader can take seriously so that we can have a truly satisfying co-creative experience together.

Experiencing this challenging learning generated a deep insight into the follower-leader relations required by today´s new world of work. I gained a new embodied understanding of what leading and following can be, and what I really mean when I claim that:„Everyone is potentially a leader“ and  „Leading and following are equally important activities."

How does the idea of mutual leadership connect the Argentine tango with Solution Focused principles?

The “lead-and-follow”-principle is common to most kinds of social dance. However, it is often confused with the “order-and-obey”-principle. In no other dance is this misunderstanding so glaringly obvious as in the Argentine tango, which is a dance of improvising together.

It can best be compared to two people having a conversation - an improvisational act that we perform successfully every day. To start a conversation, someone usually begins by proposing a topic or asking a question (the “leader”) and the other one joins in (the “follower”). However, in the course of any interesting conversation it usually happens that both partners alternatively propose topics, ask questions, respond and listen – thus both leading and following alternatively.

The leading role in tango comprises for example setting a direction, steering, being responsible for the movements of both and navigating the couple safely around the dance floor. The following role is to trust the invitation to move, to listen closely, to be open to impulse and suggestion, to react, and to fully and beautifully interpret the leader´s suggestion. A good solution-focused practitioner performs both activities in the course of a conversation.

Following is an equally active role, and once the follower has understood the direction and speed proposed by the leader, s/he “leads” the couple by her movement. Both leader and follower need to have an understanding of and a drop of the other´s role in their blood in order to create a beautiful “dance conversation”. In a Solution Focused conversation the role of leader and follower alternates all the time - the coach taking the lead maybe initially, but in the course of the conversation continuously taking cues from the coachee how to best follow her in order to steer her on the briefest possible path to her very own preferred future.

Like any improvisational activity tango also requires the „yes and...“ approach: Saying yes to the others´ contributions and building on them, making something of both resources and „mistakes“ alike, using them as opportunities for innovation.

In the Argentine tango as well as in Solution Focus understanding that leading and following are equally important roles to achieve the best possible outcome is vital from the beginning. It is also an essential recognition required from people in organisations in order to truly move into a new world of work characterized by self-organising units and empowered work relations.

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