Most first lessons in ballroom dance begin the same way - the leader, traditionally a man, learns to start on the left foot and the follower, traditionally a woman, learns to start on the right foot. This very basic concept is of critical importance to the health and safety of the dancers’ toes and essential in the development of a smoothly functioning partnership. Those first lessons set up what seems to be a very rigid, hierarchical, and traditional leadership dynamic – one leader who always leads and one follower who always follows with ‘back leading’ by the follower a serious faux pas. The leader is assigned full responsibility for success.
But as is true with many things, initial impressions are misleading. The reality is that this pairing is a true partnership. Each partner has a specific role, but both are essential to the success of the whole. The strongest most talented leader in the world can only go so far with a follower who doesn’t want to dance. And the better a follower can follow, the better the leader can lead and the smoother the dance will become. And, of course, the opposite is also true – a talented follower won’t look good with a leader who only knows two or three basic steps and never gives followers a chance to reach their full potential as a dancer.
As the dancers learn more, it becomes even more complex. Sometimes the leader leads, but sometimes the leader’s role is to get out of the follower’s way. In that situation, followers have to know what to do on their own within the structure provided. Sometimes the leader provides the momentum for moving around the dance floor. However, there are situations for which the follower must provide that energy and if that transition of responsibility isn’t smooth, progress stutters. Dancing is truly a partnership; it is not just a leader leading and a follower following.
And the ideas hold true away from the dance floor. Think about your organizations and their leaders and followers. Identify a department or committee, whatever makes sense in that organization and analyze the ‘footwork’ of the members. Are the leaders and followers in step or are they both trying to start on the left foot? Does the leader give clear directions, help the followers know what they need to do, and guide them in learning new moves? What about the followers? Do they take responsibility for their roles and provide energy and momentum to support the partnership or are they waiting to be pushed around the floor?
Great followers make a good leader better just as great leaders lift followers to new heights. The responsibility for success in our organizations belongs to each of us no matter our title or our role. The responsibility for momentum and forward progress belongs to all of us. Our dancing and our organizations work best when we use the best talents of everyone no matter what role they have. Remember “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, but she did it backwards and in high heels.”* Now that's putting the best foot forward.
*I've found this quote attributed to Faith Whittlesey, Ann Richards and Annonymous.