Dance Club, Downtown London, March 2018
An elderly British guy called Mark asks me for a dance. As I start dancing I realize that he is clearly an advanced dancer.
"Do you lead?" he asks me.
I get nervous. This is exactly what I have been trying to NOT do.
"No…. errr…Does it feel like I am trying to?" I ask with a horrified look on my face.
"No..no..absolutely not. You are obviously a skilled follower, and that is why I thought you might lead as well", he responds.
I need to note here that after the words, ‘a skilled follower’ everything faded out for me because I was too ecstatic to listen any more. Those words were music to my ears. Why?
From childhood, we are fed with a focus on leadership. Whether it's being a class monitor or leading a strategic project at the workplace, leadership is considered far more rewarding than being a follower.
And yet I was being told that I am a skilled ‘follower’ and it made me jump with joy. Why?
Well, some context is needed here.
Swing dancing has 2 people, a lead and a ‘follow’. A lead sets the direction, and the ‘follow’ builds on that to create magic on the floor. There is a beautiful interplay. The lead initiates a movement, and the follow responds based on their interpretation. Based on follower’s act, leader then decides the next step and so on. When I began swing dancing, I chose to follow as I thought it was the easiest for me to slip into. However, I quickly realized that it was much harder than it looked. I kept trying to control the movement, try to anticipate what my partner will do next, or just overprepare myself for the following step.
Isn’t being in control, being proactive, and being prepared a virtue after all? At least that’s what my years of corporate experience had taught me. The result? At worst a clumsy experience for me and my partner, and at best a mediocre viewing experience for anybody who cared to watch.
Then my instructor taught me a magic phrase - ‘It’s great to be late'. It means that for the follow it is okay to be a second late and then respond. As soon as I understood that, I was moving better, being asked to dance more, was more confident and certainly enjoying myself much more!
I then realized that the gamechanger was not about being ‘late’ - because that’s hardly perceptible. The key was a mindset which allowed me to wait, to listen, to respond rather than initiate & control. A mindset which I choose a call a ‘Follower’s mindset’.
We forget that our world is not just more complicated but also becoming more and more complex. Community is the new team. There are multiple players, multiple solutions and they are constantly changing. Traditional vertical hierarchies are not very effective now. But we still have leaders who confuse leadership with power, authority and a one-way street to being in command, like an orchestra. Often these leaders face pressure, sometimes self -created, to have all the answers all the time.
Leadership is in fact now more like a jazz band performance. There is no one leader, and diverse musicians come together with a common purpose. There are no rigid roles or rules, just some broad community guidelines. They switch between themselves to play, listen, collaborate and build on each other’s input to create a performance. It is about real-time improvisation and for it to work, everyone needs to be a good listener, a proud follower.
In today’s matrix teams and uncertain environments, leadership is too important a concept to be vested in only one person. It is a team effort. And the best teams are those, that ‘swing’ between leading and following.
When most dancers talk about dancing, they don’t talk about the dance itself. Instead, they talk about what they found with dancing. I found how to lead better by following better. To listen more than talk, to reserve judgement instead of jumping to conclusion, and most importantly, to creatively express when I am not the one setting the pace.
Going back to my story about Mark – he was keen to show me that I could indeed lead. After dancing for a while, without telling me he goes on to smoothly switch hands and points out - “See, now you are leading!” And I realized that I was indeed leading, without ever having done it before. And I believe this smooth switch was possible for me so smoothly because I had become good at the follower’s mindset.
Mark knew then, what I realized much later, that to be a better leader, you need to be great follower.
So next time when you are in an uncertain situation or feel the anxiety, the pressure to know it all- pause, take a step back - and reconsider your mindset. Great leadership is about knowing when to step in and direct, but also about when to listen, trust and follow.
These skills are underrated, but I have learnt that the real magic begins when we are able to swing between leading and following whether on the dance floor or in our teams.
So yes, we all want to be great leaders, but can we also swing to be a great follower?