The Inside Job of Leadership: Lessons from the Ballroom Dance Floor


Ballroom DancingI am passionate about ballroom dancing.  What began as a curiosity fifteen ago has blossomed into a life-long avocation.  This week, we tested (and achieved)! the gold level at our dance studio, so I’m celebrating the progression and learning and the joy I’ve had all along the way.

I could list a lot of the things that appeal to me; the beautiful, diverse music, the chance to meet other like-minded folks, the connection with my husband, the terrific workout (both body and mind), and just plain fun.    But as a leadership coach, I observe many parallels between ballroom dancing and leadership.

First, being an effective leader is a lot like leading a dance partner in five essential ways: 1)inner structure 2) connection 3) intuition 4) intention and 5) endurance.  Moreover, the essential skill we have often mentioned is the 93% of leadership influence that comes from the body, moods and emotions, rather than the words we speak.  In other words, leadership and dance require excellent non-verbal communication skills.

Moreover, the essential skill we have often mentioned is the 93% of leadership influence that comes from the body, moods and emotions, rather than the words we speak.  In other words, leadership and dance require excellent non-verbal communication skills.

 In a dance partnership, the leader must have strong core muscles in order to hold the frame and guide his partner.  He must understand the structure of a dance and how to navigate around a crowded floor safely.  In business, the leader must also have a strong core.  He must have the inner navigation system to know where he is going and how to get there.  The difference is that in business, the leader requires the help of many others to reach the goals; in dance there is only one leader and one follower.

 In dancConnected while dancinge there must be a strong, non-verbal connection between the partners.  The couple must each sense the strength and independence of the other, but look as if they are moving as one unit.  This connection is easily observable, and is a hallmark of beautiful partner dancing.  Leaders in business also must connect non-verbally if they are to be effective.  Those who are aware of their moods and emotions and how they carry and employ them to motivate others, make the most effective influencers. The effective leader allows time and space for others to express their cares and concerns, and understands that “the right conversation in the wrong mood is the wrong conversation.”

Intuition is an essential element of dancing well.  A good leader can sense what is coming and plan for it, both in terms of the best moves for a particular rhythm, but also engaging with his partner in enjoyable ways.  He must listen to his body, and respect its signals, both in terms of energy and the inevitable aches and pains that come with dancing.  Those who ignore the above usually end up worse off, at least for a while.  Leaders must also have a heightened sense of intuition.  Rather than charging to or away from others, the intuitive leader connects first to himself and makes the space for others to be heard.

Intention is a strong but often mis-understood word   Intention is a word that is felt and sensed in your body and in that of others.  It isn’t simply a spoken word.    In dance there is a point before the couple moves in which the man signals with his upper body with a very slight movement of chest expansion and breath that he is ready to move.  It comes before any movement.  It prepares for what is to come so both people are starting from the same place.  In leadership, having clear intention is fundamental for getting effective results.  If the leader lacks clear intention (or the ability to communicate it), the results will be sporadic at best.Leadership dancing

Lastly, an essential ingredient for effective leadership both on and off the dance floor is endurance.  You are in this for the long haul.  You will have fast dances, slow dances, and some in between.  Having the inner strength, both mental and physical to stay in the game requires training and supported habits that encourage consistent performance.

Ask yourself:

  • Do I have a strong foundation and “core” for my influence skills?
  • Do I connect easily and effectively with others?
  • Do I access my intuition and encourage it in others?
  • Do I act with clear intention towards my goals?
  • Do I have the endurance to stay in the game no matter what?

If this has you thinking differently, (and I hope it does), I invite you to check out my new book, “Inner Switch:  7 Timeless Principles to Transform Modern Leadership” where I’ve devoted an entire section to Connection. You can pre-order from your favorite online retailer at my website,

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