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?

Attentive listening

A couple in dancing posture with closed eyes. Followership, leadership, partner dance, collaboration, listening, trust, GamePlan A
The closed dancing posture allows two partners to non-verbally communicate – one leads, the other follows.

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.

Trust

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 factin 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.

A couple dancing in closed dancing posture, close-up on the feet. Couple dance, lead, follow, guiding, collaboration, GamePlan A
The challenge of following lies in trusting your leader to guide the right path.

Critical thinking

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-leadin 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 

What are your thoughts on followership? Share the challenges you’ve experienced as a follower and how you’ve overcome them.

10 COMMENTS

Please take note of the commenting guidelines.
You will receive an email to approve your comment.
Please take note of the commenting guidelines.
You will receive an email to approve your comment.

Thanks for your comment

You will receive an email to approve your comment. It will only appear after your confirmation.

Okay

Oh no! An unexpected error occurred.

Try again
by Victor Diaz 28.03.2019
Following is how we learn form others, and then we become the leaders.
Reply
by Frank 29.03.2019
Love this perspective and analogy, Julia. Thanks for sharing.
Reply
by Lisa 30.03.2019
Great article, Julia. I like that you raised that important topic.
Reply
by Jacques 02.04.2019
Congrats for great article Julia! Thanks for opening fresh thinking aside the beaten paths on leadership.
Reply
by Daniela 09.04.2019
Very pleasant reading Julia! I can relate to that from my tango lessons! Thanks for highlighting so nicely the importance of both roles by using an immediate metaphor and sharing your personal partner dancing experience.
Reply
Julia Theilen
Julia Theilen | Staff Daniela 10.04.2019
Thanks for your comment, Daniela. Very happy to hear you can relate to my article. Tango is a wonderful dance that highlights the need for attentive listening and trust even more, as every single movement is improvised - no figures, right?
Reply
by Jon Hollis 09.04.2019
Excellent analogy describing the importance of leaders and followers. I'm a big proponent of the fact that, by sheer definition, we cannot all be leaders. If we all lead, who follows? Great work.

I especially love the quote, "In both spheres, collaboration evolves around the successful completion of a mission, not around credit for any leader."

Reply
Julia Theilen
Julia Theilen | Staff Jon Hollis 10.04.2019
Thanks, Jon! Exactly - we can´t all be leaders. Also, different contexts require us to take different roles. In some projects, we might be a leader, but in others, we´re a follower and vice versa. Can you recall a particular experience in your life that made you see the importance of good followers? Would love to hear it.
Reply
by SYED 23.04.2019
Interesting perspective, with so much buzz around leadership - sometimes we forget the synergy that it requires as a follower.
Reply
by Evonne Dai 03.05.2019
So impressed that you pop up the idea from your hobby, and link your personal experience with the working life. I have really learnt a lot.
Reply