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Issue 1 Dance, Choreography and
Pages 114 - 130
Empowered Leaders: Dance As
An “Embodied Metaphor” For
Sheffield Hallam University, email@example.com
Health & Social Care Information Centre, NHS, Leeds, firstname.lastname@example.org
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Matzdorf, Fides and Sen, Ramen (2015) "Demanding Followers, Empowered Leaders: Dance As An
“Embodied Metaphor” For Leader-Follower-Ship," Organizational Aesthetics: Vol. 5: Iss. 1,
Available at: http://digitalcommons.wpi.edu/oa/vol5/iss1/7
Organizational Aesthetics 5(1): 114-130
© The Author(s) 2016
Demanding Followers, Empowered Leaders:
Dance As An “Embodied Metaphor” For
Sheffield Business School
Health and Social Care Information Centre, NHS, Leeds
In this paper, we explore how leadership and followership are relational, mutually constructed
and mutually enabled. Using dancesport as metaphor and medium, we focus on the
embodied, corporeal aspects and dynamics of leading and following, relating them to
lead/follow roles and tasks of people in organizations. In a mainly autoethnographic
exploration of the lived experiences of people in leader-follower-relationships, we use the
concept of embodied cognition as a basis and argue that dance can provide a vehicle for
immediate, implicit “insights” and even “aha effects” through sensory, bodily experiences.
Keywords: Leadership; followership; art-based leadership development; dance;
embodiment; embodied cognition; experiential learning; autoethnography.
Organizational Aesthetics 5(1) 115
Demanding Followers, Empowered Leaders: Dance As An “Embodied
Metaphor” For Leader-Follower-Ship
In this paper, we reflect on our leadership/followership experience from dancesport
(competitive ballroom dancing, see Tremayne and Ballinger 2008 for an introduction to this
athletic discipline), what we have learned from it, and what we have transferred to our work
as and with managers.
The insights that led to this approach did not happen overnight, but have developed over the
past two decades, as we gradually progressed from dancesport beginners to champions, all
the while working in and with different organisations. This is very much “work in progress”,
and we are still at the beginning of the journey. As highly experienced dancers, we are aiming
to formulate important points about leading and following in dance, which are often lost when
non-dancer scholars use dance as metaphor. It seems very important to bring these points
into the academic conversation about dance and organization, to add more substance to this
We base our approach on the notion that leadership/leading and followership/following are
relational, mutually constructed and mutually enabled. We have found Cunliffe and Eriksen’s
(2011) review of the field of research on relational leadership very helpful here. They “map
out” three broad themes: relational leadership as enacted in networks, being socially
constructed, and distributed throughout networks of collaboration. At this early stage in our
research, we recognise elements of this “map” in our experiences with and interpretations of
leadership, as we look at several different aspects of relational leadership: we do see it
“within a broadly hermeneutic phenomenological ontology of relational and embedded human
experience – as selves-in relation-to-others – and an epistemology grounded in knowing-
from-within interactive moments” (Cunliffe and Eriksen 2011: 1433). In particular, we add a
bodily/embodied dimension to their notion that “relational leaders are aware of the
importance of the flow of present moments in making sense of complexity, resolving
problems, shaping strategic direction and practical actions” (p.1446). In the fast-paced,
highly competitive world of dancesport, leaders need to be highly aware of their “relatedness”
at all times in order to be successful – this will be explored in more detail later.
Using dance as a medium rather than “just” a metaphor, we focus on the embodied,
corporeal aspects and dynamics of leading and following, relating them to lead/follow roles
and tasks of people in organisations. Exploring the lived experiences of people in leader-
follower-relationships, we use the concept of embodied cognition, in the sense that it is
situated, time-constrained and body based (Wilson 2002), as a basis and argue that dance
can provide a vehicle for immediate, implicit “insights” and even “aha effects” through
sensory, bodily experiences. We do see the body as the basis of cognition, in that our “own
ordinarily kinaesthetic experiences essentially frame the acquisition and development of
cognitive structures” (Wilson and Foglia 2011).
More specifically, the concept of embodied cognition embraces movement and considers
dance as a nonverbal language (Stelter 2000, Hanna 2014):
Perception and cognition are part of the process of interpretation, a process
where movement and action are always included. They work as an embodied
unity where body and mind have been brought together and function together.
(Stelter 2000: 66)
116 Matzdorf & Sen
Sheets-Johnstone (2011) goes furthest in her view of embodied cognition, in that she posits
that “consciousness is fundamentally a corporeal consciousness” (p. xxi), i.e. inextricably
linked to the senses. She further argues that “movement is first of all the mode by which we
make sense of our own bodies and by which we first come to understand the world [...] and
thus, how our tactile-kinesthetic bodies are epistemological gateways” (p. xxv). Based on this
premise, “thinking on one’s feet”, taken literally, should provide an excellent way of
understanding, in that it would constitute a rediscovery of one’s earlier experiences.
We also position our ongoing work in the expanding field of organizational aesthetics, with its
discussions around embodied learning and experience – aspects which had long been
neglected, but have been brought to the fore over the past two decades (more recently
Taylor and Hansen 2005, Sinclair 2005a, Hansen et al 2007). In taking a phenomenological
approach, we aim to draw attention to leadership and followership being relational and, like
many other dimensions/aspects of personal and organisational life, linked to sensory
experience. We take the position that management happens through social construction in
dimensions of interaction between members of organizations, leaders and followers (Hansen
et al 2007, Küpers 2013, Hujala et al 2014). Sinclair (2005b: 404) argues that “the body can
be a mediator, inﬂuencing a leader’s capacity for openness and learning. The body registers
feelings. It allows us to take note, for example, of a hunched posture or shallow breath, and
make bodily and mental adjustments”.
Dance embodies many aspects of organisational life in a microcosm – teamwork, power
relationships, job roles, competition, politics, etc and, in our experience (and the experience
of managers we have worked with), offers a medium to explore, experiment and challenge,
within a facilitated “safe” and playful environment. We argue that, based on the concept of
embodied cognition, dance can provide a vehicle for immediate, implicit “insights” and “aha
effects” through sensory, bodily experiences: “[...] encouraging people to note their bodies
and be in their bodies more consciously changes their mindset towards themselves. It can
also foster a capacity to read, register and feel compassion for what is going on for others,
that is revealed and knowable through bodies. Body awareness anchors people in the here
and now, connecting to present experience, rather than being driven by anxieties about the
future or regret for the past.” (Sinclair 2005b: 403).
Our approach is one of reflexivity and reiteration: dialogic self-inquiry and autoethnographic
notes coupled with critical reflection of assumptions, premises, conclusions (Ellis and Adams
2014). We aim to contextualise, analyse and problematise our own experiences, following a
hermeneutic, abductive methodology (Alvesson and Sköldberg 2009). We use our own
experiences as amateur dancers and professional knowledge workers and aim to make sense
of them, but also highlight linkages between those two very different fields. By describing and
interpreting our “lived experiences” (Creswell 2007: 57) in phenomenological inquiry, we offer
a body-based understanding of what leading/following entails. Whilst Creswell (ibid.)
distinguishes between “narrative study” reporting “the life of a single individual”, as opposed
to “phenomenological study” describing “the meaning for several individuals of their lived
experiences”, we cannot make this distinction, as our story involves two individuals plus both
our shared as well as our individual meanings. Cole et al. (2011) warn of the risk that “the
researcher has to be aware of the difficulties, as epistemic reflexivity can lead to a never
ending reflexive spiral” – indeed, this fear has hit at least one of us already:
The boundaries between research and experience, between work life and life
outside work, between categories and entities such as “me as a dancer”, “we as
a dance team”, “me as a researcher”, “we as a research team”, “me as a working
Organizational Aesthetics 5(1) 117
person” sometimes become so fuzzy and blurred that they are almost
indistinguishable. It is difficult to keep enough “distance to reflect” – and difficult
to find a methodological approach that covers all this and helps to make sense of
a wealth of felt, sensed, experienced data, as well as the multi-level reflections
on those data ... which sometimes become data themselves: a process of
reiteration - more like a hermeneutic rollercoaster. (Matzdorf, Snippet 1)
In terms of ethnography or autoethnography, we are in a strange situation: we did not start
as researchers, “entering” the dancesport world in order to conduct research, but we had
grown into and were immersed in both contexts as “natives” (the world of work and the world
of dancesport) before we chose to apply the ethnographic lens to them. So whilst according
to Ellis et al 2011 (p.275f), autoethnography = autobiography + ethnography, our
“becoming” was years in the past and did not have the purpose of research about “the other
side” in the first instance. We did not “study” the dancesport “culture’s relational practices,
common values and beliefs, and shared experiences for the purpose of helping insiders
(cultural members) and outsiders (cultural strangers) better understand the culture” (Ellis et
al 2011: 275f) – we became part of this culture as practicing dancers. However, the second
part of the definition fits:
Ethnographers do this by becoming participant observers in the culture [...] and
[...] in addition [...] analyze these experiences. [...] Autoethnographers must not
only use their methodological tools and research literature to analyze experience,
but also must consider ways others may experience similar epiphanies; they
must use personal experience to illustrate facets of cultural experience, and, in
so doing, make characteristics of a culture familiar for insiders and outsiders.
(Ellis et al 2011: 275f)
One of the things we attempt to do is to make “epiphany” insights from one culture useful in
the other. Our research aims a) to make that transfer obvious to others; b) to enable others
to make a similar transfer, without them having to be a full member of both worlds.
What Ellis et al (2011: 279) require of autoethnographic accounts, also applies to our –
mostly dyadic - research:
Co-constructed narratives illustrate the meanings of relational experiences,
particularly how people collaboratively cope with the ambiguities, uncertainties,
and contradictions of being friends, family, and/or intimate partners. Co-
constructed narratives view relationships as jointly-authored, incomplete, and
historically situated affairs. [...] Personal narratives are stories about authors
who view themselves as the phenomenon and write evocative narratives
specifically focused on their academic, research, and personal lives.
So as well as describing and analysing leadership and followership in dancesport and
highlighting some of the parallels to organisational life, we also include what we call
“snippets” – journal notes, insights, ideas and impressions jotted down before, after or during
conversations, occasional “thought bubbles” that “pop up” on a bus or train, during a lecture,
seminar or meeting, during a practice or on the journey home from a dance lesson or a
competition ... Journal-style, they convey our personal thoughts, feelings and comments
about themes and issues that we are working on. We have been writing these “snippets” at
irregular intervals. The first jotted-down notes date back to 2005, but we are writing them
more often now, as we reflect on our dancing, learning and work more regularly. To start
with, they were just a random collection of loose-leaf handwritten notes and typed-up
“notepad”, text or Word files. They are part of an ongoing dialogue between us as dancers,
118 Matzdorf & Sen
partners and researchers, helping us to reflect on the sometimes confusing complexity that
we have chosen to explore.
In addition to those notes, we have also included several quotes from a number of interactive
2-hour workshops that we have run with groups of managers, postgraduate students
(professionals studying part-time) and academics over the past decade. In those workshops,
we have used dance as a medium to explore leader-follower-ship, getting participants to pair
up, “give it a go”, swap roles, feed their experiences back to each other and to the group and
identify parallels to their work life. In addition, we asked them to put their thoughts and
feelings in writing, using a feedback form with a number of open-ended questions (e.g. what
did you feel from your follower/leader? Did one role feel more “natural” than the other? How
did you deal with “mistakes”? etc.)
Followership and leadership in contemporary dancesport
Modern coaches emphasise that the contributions to the whole performance of a dancing
couple are 51% from the leader, and 49% from the follower (metaphorically speaking – there
are no statistical studies to prove this as an exact number!). Whilst there are, undeniably,
controversial gender issues that need looking at, modern competitive ballroom dancing has
moved on and away from stereotypes such as “the lady’s role is just to look decorative” to a
concept that takes a partnership approach and sees the contribution of the two roles to the
success of a performance as near equal. The reason for this change is not least the
development of competitive dancing (or “dancesport”) from elegant, relaxed movement to a
more athletic, powerful and dynamic performance.1
We aim here to break with traditional (i.e. gender-stereotypical) understanding of ballroom
dancing where “lead” and “follow” were the domain of the “man” and “woman” respectively,
and demonstrate that, at least on the competitive side, this has changed into a more
dynamic, integrated, high-energy approach where constant monitoring of movement is
“embodied cognition in action” and use of the entire body from both follower and leader.
In dancesport, the ability to lead does not just mean “shifting” a follower across the dance
floor. Contrary to traditional (and still popular) notions, the “boss” in dancing is not the leader
but the rhythm of the music, as illustrated in the following diagram (Figure 1, Matzdorf and
1 The notoriously “traditionally gendered” (or in plain English: sexist) world of ballroom dancing has evolved, and so
has its understanding of leadership and followership. Until some years ago, a dance teacher’s answer to a female
follower’s request for explanation of complex choreography co-ordination of particular moves might have been,
somewhat dismissively, “just follow and look pretty” (this was actually the authors” experience with one of the senior
figures on the dance coaching scene!).
Organizational Aesthetics 5(1) 119
Figure 1. Who is “the boss”?
So throughout a dance, whilst leader and follower are enacting their relationship, they are
both bound by and led by the rhythm of the music that they are dancing to.
The leader initiates movements and invites the follower to “follow” this lead by moving and
opening up space for the leader to move into, the leader now “following” the follower into the
newly available space. Whilst the leader initiates a movement, the person going backwards
(and this switches dynamically between leader and follower depending on the figure being
danced) is in control of making the space and controlling the distance travelled.
At all times each partner is responsible for her/his own balance, and the follower should never
“abdicate” responsibility for his or her own movements. In other words, on almost every
move it is the follower’s decision to follow (unless the leader uses physical force, which would
not be conducive to achieving the “common goal” of harmonious and smooth movement!).
Hence, followers need to take responsibility for their actions. Especially in the demanding field
of contemporary dancesport and in the light of constantly (i.e. from one step to the next)
changing mode, control and intensity of action (i.e. changing “weight” of initiation and
reaction), it might be more accurate to describe the relationship as “Leader” and “Co-leader”,
since the term “follower” often implies too passive a role. The concepts of “shared leadership”
(Slater and Doig 1988), Murphy’s (1988) notion of “invisible leadership”, and Senge’s (1990)
concept of leadership as “collective capacity to create value” are more helpful in this respect.
Or, in Pedler et al’s (2003) words: “This puts the responsibility for leadership on you as a
person, but in company and relationship with other people” (p. 7). Interestingly, good dance
leaders are not the ones who constantly feel the need to remind their followers that they are
or should be “in control” (“Stop trying to lead – I’m in charge here!”).
Beyond themselves, dance partners have to manage the relationship with the rhythm of the
music, and both the amount (small vs large floor) and the shape (square vs rectangular vs
any other shape of floor) of the space around them. “Crisis management”, i.e. reacting to
sudden, unpredictable changes in the environment (e.g. avoiding collisions with other
couples) or their own condition (e.g. regaining balance after a near miss), is as much a part
of the complexity of this situation as coordination of their different tasks. As Küpers (2013)
talks about “improvisation as enactment of inter-practice in leadership” (p. 342) and
“embodied practicing of leadership” (p. 336), we are taking this literally and putting it into
Depending on desired outcome (an aesthetically pleasing performance, embodying the
character and style of the dance, versus a leisurely “social stroll”, just to name two widely
differing possibilities) and skills level, the leader’s responsibilities are:
120 Matzdorf & Sen
● planning ahead (choreography, starting points, fallback solutions, anticipating possible
● assessing and taking into account the physical environment (i.e. floor size, physical
qualities and limits of dance space, the position of adjudicators as well as other dancers);
● communicating the plan to the follower (through clear steering);
● communicating plan to the audience, adjudicators and other competitors;
● being “in tune” with the music and the partner;
● listening for the follower’s feedback;
● monitoring the environment for obstacles (static or moving);
Modifying the plan
● working to a “grand plan” whilst modifying it in response to changes in the environment;
● reassessing, adapting, or changing the next move/s from follower's feedback;
The leader needs to be “in the future” (planning directions and movements) as well as “in the
here and now” (turning plan into action, picking up responses and modifying plan
The follower’s responsibilities are:
“Listening” with the body
● to pick up the leader’s signals;
● to decide upon appropriate action;
● to carry out the action;
● to fill out the space in figures and choreography through expressive “shaping”;
Taking the lead (as and when required)
● to make the space for the leader to move into (the person going backwards is controlling
● allowing the leader to perform their own movements;
● holding their position to create turn;
Generally, the follower’s area of responsibility is more in the “here and now”, allowing the
leader to lead, but also to “deputise” when appropriate. And by the way, staying “tuned” to
the leader does not do away with the need for the follower to have a sense of general
directions within the room.
At a very physical level, good leaders are expected to have a vision, a “grand plan” of what
they want to achieve for the duration of the music – this can be anything from an elaborate
choreography to free improvisation.
Follower and leader have to manage themselves in their respective roles (Lawrence 1979),
but also manage their relationship to each other (trust, acceptance, allowing mistakes), their
own “private space”, their “communal space”, as well as the space around them and the other
dancers on the floor. This is a complex set of tasks – the sheer complexity makes it already a
suitable comparison to people’s work lives in organisations.
Organizational Aesthetics 5(1) 121
Followership and leadership in organisations
We can draw parallels between the leadership and followership in dance to that in
organisations. We address this in this case using examples from our own working lives, from
autoethnographic data that we have collected over the years, in our ongoing work with both
large and small organisations.
Revisiting some of the key issues and themes from the previous section, we highlight their
links to organisational life.
Fairly obviously, part of the requirements of leadership within organisations is to make plans
for future actions, such as development plans, financial plans, etc. For (non-dancer)
managers it might come as a surprise that the same applies to leaders on the dancefloor.
The physical environment and organisational hierarchy within a working environment can
shape the interactions within groups and teams:
Now working in a much bigger team, working on a vital part of a national
infrastructure, located in a large open-plan office, I find that it feels like a
dance - constantly navigating a crowded and complex environment, leading,
being led, teaching, being taught, sensing what others are doing, using my
peripheral vision, moving around in a shared space - between desks,
between groups, between tasks, between layers in the organisational
hierarchy … working to stay grounded, keeping my balance, my weight over
my feet, preventing myself from being pulled or pushed off balance.
By this, I mean that many of the tasks that I learned to do as a leader in
competitive dance have parallels in the business world. For instance, in
dance, I learned to keep my peripheral vision in play, and look for spaces to
move into, what others were doing, what space they were going to move
into, whether I would need to stop, and to be able to communicate that
clearly to my partner. In my current job, I need to be aware of the work
others are doing, and how it will impact my own work, or how I can help or
mesh with the other areas of work, to prevent “collisions” that take time and
energy to resolve. In reviewing other’s work, having my own reviewed, in
explaining parts of the system, understanding and having other parts of the
system explained to me, in interacting and communicating clearly with
people in other teams and parts of the organisation, and in making trade-offs
between one task and another, I can feel the strong parallels with
competitive dancing. (Sen, Snippet 5)
Communication in business is paramount: leaders must communicate clearly with their
followers, to enable them to perform their duties and meet their targets.
I used some of these techniques in leading my team - allowing people to
learn by making mistakes, also using different approaches when it was clear
one was not connecting or making sense. But above all, clarity and trust
became most important to me. Being clear on what was required, and
122 Matzdorf & Sen
trusting people to do their jobs, giving them autonomy and power, made me
a better leader. This was evident in the change in their behaviour, going
from asking me about each detail and decision, to making many decisions on
their own, and coming up with options and solutions on their own. (Sen,
A leader needs to “be in tune” - in organisations, there are many factors that produce a
context in which the leaders and followers must act; these can vary from company values,
mission statements, goals, stakeholder expectations, market factors, public opinion,
regulatory frameworks, but also they can literally mean the organisational rhythm within the
department or team:
This is a new way of working within the NHS; we are breaking the monolithic
traditional “waterfall” model of software development which takes years and
often results in delays, overspend and failure. We have developed a new
rhythm around 4 week “sprints”, a rhythm of constantly repeated specify,
develop, test, deliver, refine. (Sen, Snippet 1)
This sense of “communal” rhythm, engagement and mutuality and the importance to pay
heed to these elements to create a successful working environment is echoed by feedback
from workshop participants, as they verbalise some of their insights:
The relationship between leader and follower, being clear and being
comfortable = success and development [...]; looking at power and
resistance and who has power and who resists leadership and why.
Raised my awareness of how as a leader you must be able to work
collaboratively with your staff to achieve goal. (Workshop participant)
Getting the “balance” right - not dragging other person. Both being “in tune”.
Powell and Gifford (this issue) report similar responses from delegates on their leadership
development programme: “The use of arts-based sessions, designed to give delegates a real
physical experience of what performing artists do in order to work successfully in ensembles
to deliver an outstanding performance, was shown to deliver noticeable results in terms of
changed attitudes and behaviours”.
Monitoring the environment is vital. It is not just on the dancefloor that obstacles can be
Two years ago, I worked as part of a small team (with two colleagues) that
was going through a difficult change process. Areas of responsibility were not
clearly demarcated, but my colleagues wanted them to be more clearly
separated. My response was to initiate more frequent team communications
and to make explicit what each one of us was leading on, to make sure that
they both had a lead on “their” respective areas, but also to ascertain that
we all knew what was happening. In a way, I endeavoured to keep them “in
the lead” in order to enable better collaboration.” (Matzdorf, Snippet 2)
Organizational Aesthetics 5(1) 123
In a large open plan area, with team seating assignments changing on a
monthly basis (though not everyone moves every time), it becomes hard to
become too territorial about particular areas, and the fact that we work often
across team boundaries - someone outside our team often has expertise we
need, so there is a lot of getting up and moving around the space, and
discussions and little groups forming and breaking up. (Sen, Snippet 3)
But often it is metaphorical; the obstacles can be other companies, individuals, government
regulation, public relations disasters, and many other possible operational issues.
Modifying the plan
Working to a “grand plan” whilst modifying it in response to changes in the environment (i.e.
the “traffic”), leaders have to consider organisational or team strategy, but also be flexible,
adjusting goals and tasks, and reacting to changes and challenges:
I have planned work for the team, long-standing planned tasks such as
moving the development infrastructure from our development partners to in-
house, improving backup and restore processes, to new medium term tasks
such as moving data-centres to government mandated ones, but then we
have emergencies and unexpected issues and bug-fixes, or operational
issues around disk-usage that need to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
It’s a constant balancing act of strategic, long term plans versus short term
goals and quick fixes. Sometimes long term goals have to change - such as
the change in government rules around public sector data-centres. (Sen,
Reassessing and taking into account feedback is always necessary, combined with letting the
followers or team members do their jobs. Trust is mutual and cannot be demanded, but has
to be built.
I learned, perhaps not as quickly as I should, that I needed to trust my
partner to do her part, that I had to initiate the action, and then allow her to
do her action, allowing me the space to do my action. I had to learn to allow
my partner to take initiative at different times (the person going backwards
has the initiative, as they must make the physical space for the person going
forwards), to not push my partner or physically try to move her into the
position I wanted, but to hint, to guide, to allow her to perform her actions. I
learned that I couldn’t do it for her.
That helped me to understand, in my new role and my new company,
developing software for schools, that I needed to let my staff do their jobs,
and not micro-manage, but to allow them the space to do things their own
way, to guide and keep the “grand plan”, but not to decide on every last
detail myself. I found that allowing followers to be active participants in the
equation to be an underrated part of the leadership-followership dynamic,
but doing so gave team members the space to develop their own potential,
as well as allowing them to develop the best possible solutions to problems
that they took more ownership over. (Sen, Snippet 4)
124 Matzdorf & Sen
A good follower, like a good leader, must be able to “listen” to the lead, and the other factors
in the environment that feed into their work.
And it can all go quite wrong, and leaders lose their legitimacy when their followers do not
acknowledge them and/or allow them to lead:
In another job, I witnessed an ineffectual “leader” who was ignored - their
input not valued, their “commands” not listened to, because they didn”t
make what were considered sound technical decisions, simply because they
didn’t have the background and understanding for it. (Sen, Snippet 7)
This requires a sense of independence and responsibility, as well as team spirit. To use
existing models of followership: neither a “sheep”, “yes-person”, or “pragmatic” follower, and
certainly no “alienated” follower (Kelley 2008) would fulfil the requirements of a championship
tournament - in fact, to achieve top performances in a highly competitive environment, no
less than a “star follower” will do! It is perhaps not surprising that in Chaleff’s (2009) model
the highest-engaged follower is labelled “partner” - that fits in well with the dance metaphor.
On the other hand, Ropo and Sauer’s 2008 paper leaves the reader with the impression that a
“waltz leader” would prefer a compliant “sheep” or “yes-person”. For a social waltz this might
do, but there is little chance to be a winning couple on a competition floor when your
relationship follows this pattern.
Taking “the lead”
If I’m being pushed around, lose my balance and fall over my feet, I’m not
going anywhere fast ... So I want to be allowed and enabled to do my best.
Similarly, where I’m taking a lead at work, I want co-workers to take
ownership and responsibility for what they do, shape their contributions,
bring in their own talents and ideas. I’m happy to support and facilitate, to
chip in as and when needed, both as leader and follower - I do want to give
and receive leadership, feedback and connection.
I don’t like “being managed”. I believe that management is not about
“managing staff” but “helping staff to manage their work(load)”. One thing
that resonates strongly with me, a lesson learnt from dancing, is the concept
of “letting the follower do their job”, i.e. not micromanaging, pushing around
or bullying, but planning, initiating and giving space - as a follower I don’t
need to be pushed into action, I’m actually quite keen on doing the best job I
can do … I’m happy to go the extra mile - but that’s difficult on a “short
lead”! (Oops, am I saying here that I’m not a doggie - I can think for myself
… doh!)” (Matzdorf, Snippet 3)
The idea here is that the follower has their own competency and job to do, and that the
leader gives the follower the space and time to do this, and leeway to develop their own ideas
how best to go about their work:
I have been very lucky in my current role to have had a very good project
lead. His approach to leading is to provide a strong vision, delegate
responsibility to competent people, and say “if anyone or anything is
Organizational Aesthetics 5(1) 125
stopping you from getting things done, then come to me and I will fix it”.
This means that he will find a workable solution to issues like insufficient
budget, people outside the team putting barriers in the way, and he is not
afraid to shout at people outside the team to make things happen.
Sometimes in the NHS this is the most valuable characteristic a leader can
have. He makes it possible to get things done, in a culture that has
traditionally been very resistant to change. Giving me this space and time
has really helped me to get on with my job and produce good results. (Sen,
Discussion and further questions
Dance as metaphor for leadership has become fairly widely used over the past two decades.
Many management theorists use it just in that metaphorical sense, to emphasize the rituals,
the co-ordinated “balletic” (ideally harmonious?) patterns of actions and interweaving
activities of an organisation. Two typical examples: In Senge and Kleiner’s 1999 book The
Dance of Change, the dance metaphor is only used in the title of the book; it does not occur
anywhere else, which might beg the question whether it actually adds any value. Other
authors, such as Stumpf and Dutton in their paper The dynamics of learning through
management simulations: Let’s dance (2007), use dance as a metaphor for various parts of a
learning process, but the actual method employed for the course described has nothing to do
with dance. Others, like Chaleff (2009), extend the metaphor to emphasise movement,
relationship, co-ordination and togetherness in the workplace:
In the dance of leaders and followers, we change partners and roles [...]. With
each new partner we must [...] adjust our movements and avoid others’ toes. If
we are leading, we must lead, and if we are not, we must follow, but always as a
strong partner. We constantly [...] improve our gracefulness in a wide diversity
of styles and tempos. (Chaleff 2009: 31)
Some scholars use dance as a comparison for leadership styles (e.g. Ropo and Sauer 2008).
However, the image of a waltzing couple as a “well-oiled machine” (Ropo and Sauer 2008)
did not resonate at all with our own experience of “managing at the edge of chaos”! When we
dance, especially in a competitive context, we push our bodies to the limits - one wrong move
could mean anything from falling over to twisting a joint, or from rupturing a ligament to
concussion or even a cracked skull, such are speed, momentum and potential impact on the
dancefloor. It takes a significant amount of trust to “jump” into a “void” hoping that your
partner will be there to catch you - this might sound dramatic and elicit images of trapeze
artists rather than smooth travelling around a dancefloor … but the harsh reality of
competitive dancing is just that.2 Mark Powell’s first-hand experience of high-level Latin
American dancing (see Powell and Gifford’s article in this special issue) echoes this.
But is Ropo and Sauer’s impression wrong? Their experience of a waltz might have been a
visit to an afternoon tea dance. And what if dancing is both? What looks like a well-oiled
machine to an outsider is in fact managing at the edge of chaos – when watching a world
champion perform, the main impression is that it’s smooth and easy – the audience do not
see the hard work beneath the smile (in this respect dancesport resembles ice dance, figure
skating, gymnastics, circus acrobatics, or ballet). And is that not the case in many
organisations? What comes across as seamless customer service, presented with a smile, is
2 As an aside: dancesport injuries actually include cracked ribs, fractured skulls, and kidney injuries, amongst more
“benign” damages such as dislocated joints, torn cartilage and ruptured ligaments.
126 Matzdorf & Sen
often the result of more or less chaotic processes, emotional labour, struggles, politics … the
customer/audience is not meant to see this, as long as they are happy with the results!
But whilst there is much going on, both practically and theoretically, in the field of
experiential management learning, only very few scholars have used the practicality and
corporeality of dance as a learning tool (some examples are Peterson and Williams 2004,
Hujala et al 2014; more often management consultants such as Leary-Joyce and Bezy 2012,
Ludevig 2014). From our own experience as dancers, this has been a missed opportunity - a
gap that this journal is beginning to fill (see Springborg and Sutherland; Powell and Gifford;
Zeitner et al.; and Hujala et al., this issue). So, based on Sheets-Johnstone’s (2011) and
Shotter’s (2011) approaches of movement-as-cognition, as well as Stelter’s (2000) and
Hanna’s (2014) notions of dance-as-language and arguments for sensory learning, we have
replaced - or better: added to - the “idea” of dance with the concrete “experience” of dance.
We use the ballroom dance metaphor to describe the leader-follower relationship as a
phenomenological exploration of embodied and lived experiences. Our experiences both in a
dancesport environment, and in work environments, have shown us that there is a lot of
cross-fertilisation and parallels between those two areas. This is echoed by feedback from
participants of the workshops that we have facilitated over the past ten years, using dance
exercises as a vehicle to explore leader-follower-ship.
Given that the “practicing [...] of leader- and followership arises from direct and engaged
participation in bodily experiences, acts and responses of living and organizing” (Küpers,
undated: 8), we have explored these issues in a range of practical learning situations. Like
the participants in our workshops, we have found that dance has indeed been helpful in
highlighting and making explicit some of the more complex leader-follower dynamics, helping
to understand and shaping our own leadership and followership processes in our work
environments. In that respect, we have taken up Chandler’s (2012) suggestion that dance
“would be a useful metaphor” for organisational life and could “serve to bring out the non-
verbal aspects of everyday cultural forms in which it is the interplay of human bodies in their
physical and social context that needs to be understood” (p.866), but in putting it into
physical practice we have moved beyond it to take it a step further. With an emphasis on
“being in the moment”, dancing encourages both leader and follower to tune into their
emotions and their bodily awareness, fostering “a capacity to register and feel compassion for
what is going on for others, that is revealed and knowable through bodies” (Sinclair, 2005b:
403). Hujala et al. (this issue) sum this up very succinctly in their research question: “Why
should we be satisfied with mere words if we can harness the whole physical body of the
participants to elicit, express and create new and different kinds of knowledge about follower-
By rejecting the traditional, dichotomous perspective of the leader and follower having rigidly
defined roles, and instead replacing this with a dynamic, integrated approach of embodied
leading and co-leading, using an embodied cognition concept and involving the entire body,
we have experienced a significant change of understanding leadership, and have been able to
apply that understanding to our own work contexts.
This has had a discernible effect, as the feedback received from a work team member shows:
I like his lead - it’s much more laid back ... when I was working under my
previous manager, he was always there all the time, giving me stuff to do next.
He gave me lots of horrible stuff to do … but now I can get on with the things I
need to do.” (Sen, Snippet 9)
Organizational Aesthetics 5(1) 127
This provides support that reflective dance does make a difference – and a difference to
attitude about leadership/followership.
However, many open questions remain, for example:
● To what extent can our experience of two decades as competitive dancers translate into
experiences for non-dancers?
● To what extent can our reflections be useful for others?
● Being somewhat “compulsive reflectors” ourselves, to what extent can we assume that
others, less reflectively inclined professionals (e.g. managers with busy schedules) would
find the dance experience illuminating? And what difference (if any) would it make to their
day-to-day practice? Research presented elsewhere in this volume (Powell and Gifford,
Springborg and Sutherland, Hujala et al.) suggests that such change does indeed happen.
● How can our highly “embodied” and individual experience be communicated to others and
still make sense, without a bodily, “enlightening”, explanatory presence? Several incidents
in conference presentations underline the importance of bodily presence and four-
dimensional, personal experience … often, one movement says more than many words.
Beyond our own experiences and “snippets”, comments and feedback from workshops on
leader-follower-ship and dance provide some initial data that appear to confirm at least some
of our personal conclusions. Evidence is now emerging that this can work, and we hope that
our study will encourage further inquiry.
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About the Author(s)
Fides Matzdorf – a researcher and facilitator based at Sheffield Business School. She has an
eclectic background, holds various degrees (English Language and Literature, Applied
Linguistics, Management Learning), and has spent nearly two decades in facilities
management education and CPD. She is interested in leader-follower-ship research,
organisational learning and change, mindfulness, and she likes scenario planning. Crossing
boundaries is the story of her life ...
Ramen Sen – works for the Health and Social Care Information Centre in Leeds. Having a
gained a doctorate in electronic engineering, he has since realised that one of the most
interesting aspects of technology is people, and how they interact with technology and with
each other. Having worked in many different organisations as an IT consultant, run a small
software development company, and seen many different organisational cultures, he became
interested in how organisations deal with leadership and followership, and now works
undercover leading one of the teams that keeps the data backbone of the NHS running 24/7.
Most of the rest of his time he spends working on his dancing …
Together, the authors compete in Ballroom and Latin American dancing, and are the 2015
United Kingdom Senior 10 Dance champions.