Leadership Lessons from Fred Astaire

By Morag Barrett on May 25, 2012

Posted by Morag Barrett | May 25, 2012Leadership Lessons from Fred AstaireAs I was growing up I remember watching the Sunday afternoon movie on T.V.. In addition to the Westerns, I particularly remember watching the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, where they swirled seamlessly across the dance floor and managed to smile the entire time. They made it look easy.Fast forward to 2009 as I enter the local Fred Astaire Dance Studio for my first ballroom dancing lesson. After the obligatory tour of the ballroom, a quick summary of the dances that I would be learning (Swing, Foxtrot, Waltz, Rumba, Cha-Cha, Tango) I was asked why I wanted to learn to dance.  “To look elegant” was my response – in my head the true answer of ‘getting past the embarrassment of not knowing how to dance’ came to mind.As I reflect on the last two years there are many leadership lessons to share.  Here are just a few of them.Trust Your PartnerWhile Fred Astaire was an amazing dancer I have to take my hat off to Ginger Rogers, especially as I now understand just what is involved.  Ginger had to do everything backwards… and in high heels.  She couldn’t see what was coming, it was Fred’s job not to lead her into obstacles, to provide a solid frame for Ginger to look good.  Ginger had to trust Fred completely.Leadership Lesson: Trust is the foundation for effective teamwork and results, without it you lose speed and agility.Lead AND FollowBallroom dancing is definitely about teamwork.  There can only be ONE leader and ONE follower, and in ballroom dancing it is the gentleman who leads and the lady who follows, given that the lady is dancing backwards this is a matter of common sense and safety!  For me, this was one of the hardest lessons.  In most aspects of my life I lead… learning to follow and give up control took time.However, what I also learned is that following is not a passive process.  In the same way as the gentleman can see what is coming, and protects my back… I have his, when we are dancing on a crowded dance floor I am watching for other couples moving behind him and making sure he doesn’t back into them.  We protect each other.  Following also means that I am ready to step in and [back] lead if necessary, especially if I am dancing with a less experienced partner.Leadership Lesson: Clarify roles and responsibilities but don’t let them limit you in achieving results.Sequins and Sparkles MatterSuccess on the dance floor requires technical competence.  However technical competence alone will not suffice if you don’t catch the judges eye.  That’s where the sequins and sparkles come in, they attract attention and differentiates you from the other dancers.Leadership Lesson: Make sure you differentiate your product or service to stand out from the crowd and attract your customers. Different Dances Need Different PartnersOnce you have mastered the basic patterns the instructors take turns dancing with you and leading your lessons.  The first few times this happened I resisted… I likened it to learning to drive a new car – everything felt different, felt wrong.  I had to change my dance posture, stride etc to fit the new partner, however I did adapt and learn.  Leadership Lesson: To be an effective leader, you need to shake your team up, provide new experiences and changing roles.  Doing so increases your teams’ ability to adapt and respond to changing situations.  Shaking things up and challenging your team will ensure that when they face challenging times they will be more resilient and effective as a result.Pick up the Beat to Keep LearningThere was nothing ‘elegant’ about my first few lessons!  On first glance dancing shouldn’t be that hard; right, left, right, left  – there can’t be that much too it!  I don’t know about two left feet… there were times when I felt like I had three!  I found it particularly hard to learn the ‘latin motion’ (snaky hips) required for the cha-cha and rumba… as I regularly pointed out to my instructors“I’m British, we don’t do Latin… we do ‘stiff’!”Thankfully, my excuses were ignored, and with more practice, coaching and feedback provided to help me understand and learn the muscle movements required.  While I have now mastered the basics of latin motion my instructors continue to raise the game… focusing on head position, arm movements… it never seems to end!We’ve all been there, learning a new skill, a new role – it’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable… until that moment when it seems to ‘click’ and gets easier, becomes effortless.   The challenge for all of us is to stay in the game until it does become effortless, and not to tell ourselves stories that excuse us from trying and learning.Leadership Lesson: Anticipate and embrace the ‘awkwardness’ it’s part of the process to competence!I am now two years into ballroom dancing and can safely say I am addicted and continuing to learn.I am curious… what have you learned from your hobbies or an unexpected opportunity?Related Articles"The Deep End" may be exactly where you need to beI have written previously of the leadership lessons from Fred Astaire. 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