The Value of Followership: Lessons from the Dance Floor
Our culture is fixated on leadership. Everyone recognizes the value of good leadership, but the ability to follow is just as important and is a skillset that undeservedly leads a shadowy existence.
Partner dancing taught me the value of followership skills – both on the dance floor and at the office.
I had just finished my first Salsa classes, when I decided to put my new-found skills to the test at a social dance night. I quickly became frustrated – we stepped on each other’s feet and I felt my partners trying to control my movements by pulling my arms or telling me what to do.
For the uninitiated, a couple should move harmoniously without talking or using force. I knew all my steps – so, why was it not working?
My instructor said I wasn’t allowing my partners to lead me. I needed to learn how to follow. But my inner ego protested; thinking of myself as a good follower felt unsatisfying in a society that defines leadership as an essential ingredient to success.
Fast forward to today, I learned my lesson:
What Makes the Art of Followership?
Being a good follower is tough. It’s not a passive role. For a team to succeed, active followership is key.
In dancing, this means building a strong framework (your dancing position) with the leader to feel every guiding signal and respond. Sounds easy? The challenge is that a signal can be as subtle as a shift of body weight from one foot to the other.
There’s no set choreography. Social dancers improvise their steps according to the music played. You need to be super attentive and maintain eye contact with your partner.
Following doesn’t mean being pushed and pulled around by a leader; it means completing a signaled movement while still expressing my own style.
Translated to business, active followership means regularly checking in with the team leader and carefully listening to briefings and guidance.
Even when I go out dancing today, I still struggle to give up control. It’s scary and it doesn’t come naturally to someone raised to be proactive and independent. Following requires you to trust someone else. Trust that they’ll take the right path at the right pace for you.
As with anything, taking on a follower role in a team requires you to trust your leader.
When I gave dance partners a chance and truly allowed myself to be led, they surprised me in a positive way. Following doesn’t mean you’ll be stepping out of the limelight. In fact, in Latin dancing it’s quite the opposite: The leader is responsible for making the follower shine. So why are we always so reluctant to follow? I’m guessing it’s the fear of losing control.
Regardless of whether you’re at work or on the dance floor, be comfortable in the fact that sometimes you’ll be taking on a supportive role, but have faith that your leader will help guide the way.
Through dancing, I’ve learned that the follower must not simply obey all guidance. To avoid collisions on the dance floor, followers are responsible for back-leading – resisting the leader’s signal and instead guiding the pair another way.
The same counts for active followership in business: Trust and follow if the overall project roadmap you’re given makes sense to you, but also raise your voice and question steps you perceive as highly critical or even dangerous. Good followers invisibly keep leaders on track.
Critical thinkers are an asset to any team – challenging leaders’ decisions can help them see some of the obstacles they don’t see themselves.
Take confidence from being a follower
When dancing as a couple, the man traditionally leads and the woman follows. Gender roles that sound politically incorrect and outdated, I know; however, dancing showed me that both roles are equally important for a couple to perform well. Defining clear roles is not about superiority or submission, it’s about what’s practical. Dance couples perform in an equal partnership, regardless of gender.
In both spheres, collaboration evolves around the successful completion of a mission, not around credit for any leader.
Applying the above learnings to my professional life has made me a better team player. I enjoy playing a supportive part in collaborative projects and I see the benefit of having someone experienced taking the lead. Accepting that your role is sometimes to follow will make it easier to take your team or partnership to succeed in whatever it is you’re wanting to achieve.
I especially love the quote, "In both spheres, collaboration evolves around the successful completion of a mission, not around credit for any leader."