How dance makes you a better leader with interviews with CEOs and leaders of industry.
Boardrooms and bachata? Lindy hop and LinkedIn? Merengue and meetings? Business and dance seem like uncomfortable bedfellows, but dancing can inform leadership, making your interactions with clients, employees or business partners more effective and fulfilling.
I’ve experienced this crossover firsthand. I’m a business and leadership coach and former professional dancer who has used the wisdom I’ve gained from overcoming challenges on stage -from breaking a heel while dancing in front of hundreds of people to having to perform outdoors in the pouring rain – to support my professional growth.
I’ve also brought these ideas to my private and corporate clients. Whether I’m introducing the idea that leaders also need to know how to follow during a corporate retreat, or watching a type-A CEO’s journey learning to release control in her first tango classes, I’ve seen methodologies from dance have a significant impact on people’s leadership.
In my book, Dance Adventures, authors from around the world share incredible stories about how dancing abroad catalyzed their personal and professional growth. Here are a few of the lessons that authors and leaders from around the globe took away.
Adapt at Lightning Speed
Alvin Ailey Dancer, Courtney Celeste Spears has honed her leadership as a professional artist, the co-founder of the ArtSea Dance and a student in Harvard Business School’s Crossover Into Business program.
Courtney credits dance for helping her develop a leadership superpower of adaptability.
“Being a dancer has forced me to learn to adjust quickly to various scenarios,” Spears said, citing times when there’s been an unexpected change in performance logistics. “This is an important leadership skill. While people are still trying to figure things out or accept the fact that change is happening, you’ve already seen it and figured out how to move forward. This has others look to you for guidance, which naturally makes you a leader.”
Michelle Coyle, the founder of management consulting firm BGSD Strategies, felt out of her element in her first zouk class.
“I started in a follow role and I struggled because I am not a follower in life!” She said. “I’m a dominant, assertive CEO who is used to calling the shots.”
While practicing her steps with a friend, however, he said something that changed her understanding of dance and leadership:
“I create the space for you to step into!” he explained.
This allowed her to better leverage her other team member’s expertise, a hallmark of good leadership, as well as delegation so that she could focus on growing the business.
Be more resilient
“Learning theater dance, tango, and salsa made me a far more confident Marine commander, counterterrorism officer, and professor,” said Howard Gambrill Clark, who is now president of the think tank Narrative Strategies. “It taught me that, if I make a mistake or come across in a way I wish I hadn’t — whether I’m teaching in a class of international students or speaking to a division of marines — I can come back from it.”
This realization first came to Clark when he was doing fight dance moves during a West Side Story performance.
“I wiped out,” Clark said. “I worried that people would judge me, but then I realized that brushing myself off, continuing and learning from what happened is what counted. It was a very freeing realization that has allowed me to try things and push the envelope in my career.”
Strategically Influence Others’ Perceptions:
Since 1994, Tom Koerner has balanced organizing, teaching and performing for his DC-based organization Gottaswing with his work as a criminal defense lawyer. Being on stage for dance helped him with his legal career, he said.
“Competitive dancing and courtroom work are very similar,” Koerner said. “There is a performance aspect, and you have to consider how the audience perceives you and how to portray yourself as confident. To do this well, you need to learn to think on your feet and stay aware of how you come across to others.”
Become a Better Negotiator:
For Nikki Hibbs, a blues dancer and contract negotiator who has worked across various industries, dance helped highlight a huge professional blind-spot.
“Reading nonverbal cues is something you need to do as a leader in my field, and it was a skill I didn’t realize I lacked until a year after I started dancing,” Hibbs said. “As a blues follow, I am constantly paying attention to my lead’s body language.”
Hibbs cited a time during a negotiation when she put her newly developed observation skills to work:
“The other party was communicating that everything was going well, but I noticed that the room was warm and they weren’t taking off their jacket,” she said. “Their shoulders were also slumped and their arms were crossed.”
As she asked more questions, Hibbs realized the other party was trying to push for a contract that they weren’t sure they could complete, and adjusted the meeting accordingly.
Own Your Voice
Learning balboa helped world-renowned swing dance instructor Nick Williams gain the confidence to develop his unique brand.
In 1998, Williams worked in the balboa community, which had strong opinions on the dance.
“Initially, the community talked about moves and styling as binary,” he said. “We used the words ‘always’ and ‘never’ in our classes. Something was either balboa or it was not.”
Williams’ approach to balboa changed when he watched videos of the original dancers, and saw the ‘rules’ weren’t the only way to dance.
“It set me on a path of taking my learning into my own hands,” Williams said. “It helped me develop initiative and taught me not to wait for permission from others to develop my own thing.”
Through my own experience, as well as the experiences of leaders from around the world, it’s clear that it doesn’t matter if you’re new to dance or a seasoned professional. Whether you’re learning salsa, kizomba, or flamenco, there is ample opportunity for leadership development.
Megan Taylor Morrison is an avid dance adventurer and certified life and business coach. She has studied local dance forms in 16 countries on six continents, as well as designed and co-led retreats to Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and India. Through lectures, roundtables, and articles, Meg continues to share best practices for cultural immersion through the arts. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a bachelor’s in international affairs and French from the University of Puget Sound.
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