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Claudelle von EckChief Executive Officer of the IIA SA

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Shall we dance? Leadership is an art - Part I

Posted By Claudelle von Eck, Monday, 12 June 2017


We all need that something in our lives that helps us to escape and rejuvenate our souls. I love dancing. Not just any kind of dancing. I took an interest in Ballroom and Latin American dancing a number of years ago and have been with the same dance instructor, Tony, ever since. Our partnership developed over the years, something we periodically chat about– on the odd occasion when I am not too tired to talk. The more and more I reflect on my lessons and those conversations, I have to concede that I have learnt much in the process. I am convinced that the art of dancing can teach us a whole lot of good leadership lessons. Allow me to share some of them with you, from both the perspective of my observations of how I respond to the process as well as my observations of Tony as the other side of the coin in the process. Let me hasten to say that I am sharing lessons I have observed not what I am claiming to have mastered. I still have much to learn. The principles below (and subsequent blogs as this is only part one. When I start talking about dancing I can't shut up) are of course not covering all the leadership principles you should be aware of. They are only the ones I have learned on my dance journey.                 


1.       You must be able to hear the music

Let me be clear, when I refer to hearing the music, I mean your ability to hear the rhythm and interpret it. When you truly listen, the music tells you what to do and where to go. I have watched many a dance student so focused on getting the steps and sequence right that they become oblivious to the soul of the music. The result is a mechanistic sequence of steps that lack the fluidity of true dancing. It may even look semi-professional, but it does not draw those who watch into the magic, nor does it leave them with a touch of envy because they recognise a hint of the mystical depths within which one could lose yourself. The music sets the context. It whispers in your ear and subtly suggests a genre of steps that would sweep you into that wonderful place I call the ethereal dance dimension. Where you are no longer encumbered by the stark reality of everyday life and can embrace your true self. I’m one of those who think that there is a good reason why one sees so many ancient cultures using dance as a means to entering other dimensions.


In observing Tony, it is clear to me that you can’t lead if you don’t understand the music yourself. It would be a disaster if I heard the music differently to what Tony hears and how he interprets it. Interpreting the music runs across various genres of dance. Over the years Tony has tutored me in over ten different types of dances. In one dance lesson we generally run through most of them and to a large extend I am at his mercy. So, as he changes the music, so my steps may change. I can therefore within minutes move from a slow Rumba to a feisty Salsa. I must admit, there are times when he puts on a piece of music which my brain is not able to interpret immediately, and I have to ask: “What is this?”.


Context is everything. Just like the dancer who must truly hear the music, the leader must hear the rhythm of the organisation as well as its industry and its broader context. It is the context that tells you where to go next. Key to the leader’s role is the interpretation of the context and leading the team in sync with the rhythm. More importantly, the leader must understand multiple contexts and be able to change feet fast and instinctively when the trends show a shift in pace and direction. In other words, you need to understand multiple contexts and be able to adapt fast. If you don’t understand what is being thrown at you, ask someone who is an expert in that area. It is better to ask those who understand that particular context, then to get lost in it and apply the wrong response to it. For example, many leaders are not hearing the music in their context changing the rhythm to digitisation, disruptions, artificial intelligence etc. You cannot dance the sensual Rumba when Salsa music is playing.


That mechanistic approach to dancing is what I also observe when it comes to governance (which is of course a leadership issue). Too many leaders do not truly understand the spirit behind governance principles and are taking a tick box approach to what they perceive to be rules that they must comply with – begrudgingly so.


2.       The partnership shapes the quality of the dance and the imagery others see

Over the years Tony and I learned to listen to each other. This is crucial to our ability to flow together in unison. Entering the dance dimension requires a partnership that is not only close knit, but also fluid. Central to that is trust. Building the trust that we have was certainly not a one month effort. Tony will tell you that it took years before I trusted him enough to completely relax, flow with him and allow him to see my soul. I needed to trust that he would not require anything of me outside the dance dimension that would bind us in the trappings of the ordinary and unnecessary complexities. In building the trust, we could also start to experiment together as I knew I was allowed to get things horribly wrong without being judged. As my instructor, he would always catch me. I have gone as far as just starting to free fall backward without warning, knowing that he’ll be there to catch me (true story). I guess he had gotten to understand that I can be unpredictable and that he has to be on high alert around me – especially when I arrive wide awake (Luckily most days I am just so tired that I can hardly keep my eyes open).


Good leaders understand that trust is important. If people are going to follow you, they must be able to trust that you will do the right things for the right reasons and not go off-step. Of course at the centre of this is ethics. When I bare my soul while dancing I have to trust that Tony has the ethical fibre of an instructor who will not use that against me. Trust is a feeble thing. So difficult to build and so easy to destroy. I guess what makes it more complicated is that trust can mean different things to different people. So many will start off by looking at you through the lenses of their own frame of reference. You may start at a below zero point in their eyes simply because of your background or/and appearance. As a woman of colour, I have experienced situations where my motives were questioned simply because the other person comes from a background where there is a belief that people of colour are not trustworthy. Although it is not fair to project that on me, I have to understand that it is their reality and thus becomes my reality. The only way one can counterbalance that is to stay true to what is right and remain consistent. Eventually the truth always triumphs. It is however naïve to think that everyone will simply just trust you because you say that you are trustworthy. You demonstrate it over time. Eventually you win people over when they see that you’re consistently doing the right thing (unless of course they allow their prejudices to trump justice).


It is important for leaders to know that they do not operate in a vacuum and that they need to be aware of how others interpret the context around them. Not always easy because some people are just tone deaf when it suits them. The more power in your side of the corner, the greater the responsibility in your hands and the bigger the need to first consider the impact and its ripple effects of your next move, before you make it. Leaders, who do not consider who it is they are dancing with, run the risk of steering a situation in the wrong direction all together. Who you’re dancing with as well as how you dance with others does not only impact on your reputation, but also shapes your legacy. This should lead you to dance in a responsible manner.

I often wonder whether leaders consider how their steps impact on those they are dancing with. Do we spend enough time on assessing the context as well as our dance partners correctly? Do we understand that it is unethical to break the souls of those we dance with -  those who are under our care? 


3.       Learning to dance well takes time

These days my weekly lesson is late in the evening, which means that very few people get to see me dance (just as I prefer it, as entering the dance dimension with distractions around me is rather difficult for me). On the odd occasion I get people complimenting my dancing. My response normally is to immediately say that it took years to get there. And it did. Make no mistake, I’m by no means a pro, but I’m not too bad for an amateur. It did take years though. One advances from the more simple steps to the complex ones over time, but it also takes time (unless you are, unlike me, super talented of course) to get pass the steps into the fluidity where the movement draws people in, compelling them to watch and sense a glimpse of the dance dimension.


A principle that many don’t understand is that there is no substitute for the foundation. This is the hard part. Truth is, there is nothing that is truly worth it that comes without a challenge. Like the beginning of a movie that sets the scene, the beginners’ classes are vital. The more time you spend on getting the basics right, in particular how the steps relate to a particular type of music, the more creative you can become later as you graduate to a higher level of dancing. This is where many either fall off the bus or become stuck. Building your foundation is tedious and can become boring. You have to understand that it is part of the process and vitally important to entering the dance dimension later. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again. My boredom level is quite low, but in hindsight, I needed to go through the boring stuff to get to the fluid interpretation of the music. It’s like learning a new language. If you skip some important steps in the process, you may very well find yourself horribly exposed when you start to play in the big leagues.


The understanding that wisdom in leadership takes time to build, seems to fast becoming a lost concept. With the younger generation coming through one is too often observing a haste which results in job hopping, which in turn impacts on the individual’s ability to build enough depth. The same applies to those who have spent some time on becoming technically strong, but have neglected the foundation building necessary in soft skills and in particular leadership. Wisdom is not shaped by knowledge alone, but certainly by a great deal of experience. Having the book knowledge does not mean that you will be able to stand through the tests and trails brought by the intense winds reserved for the higher trees. Too many want to leap to leadership positions without spending the time laying that all important foundation.  It may be tedious and boring to spend time in the trenches before leaping into leadership positions, but it remains a necessary precursor to mature leadership.


The more you practice, the more you will improve your dancing. More in my next blog……..


Tags:  challenge  change  Claudelle von Eck  context  dance  ethics  foundation  governance  lead  leaders  leadership  trust 

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Comments on this post...

Josef N. Iyambo says...
Posted Tuesday, 20 June 2017
I am impressed by her wordings.
Permalink to this Comment }

Heila Van Wyk says...
Posted Tuesday, 10 July 2018
Claudelle, you have inspired me to better myself. I have found that the higher up you move the harder role models are to come by. Thank you for sharing so beautifully. I am truly proud to have you as a leader!
Permalink to this Comment }

Claudelle von Eck says...
Posted Tuesday, 10 July 2018
Thank you for your kind words,Heila. Glad to hear that you were inspired :-)

Permalink to this Comment }

Claudelle von Eck says...
Posted Tuesday, 10 July 2018
Thank you for your kind words,Heila. Glad to hear that you were inspired :-)

Permalink to this Comment }

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