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Shall we dance? Leadership is an art - Part III

Posted By Claudelle von Eck, Thursday, 24 August 2017
Updated: Friday, 25 August 2017


This is Part III of my blog on the leadership lessons I have learned on the dance floor. If you have not yet read Parts I and II, I suggest that you first scroll down to the two blogs before this one as this follows on from there. (And don’t forget my disclaimer. I am still a student of leadership myself….).


I have just recently returned from Sydney where I attended the IIA international conference and committee meetings, followed by our own annual national conference, trips to Namibia and Zambia and being sick in between. That meant a few weeks of no dance lessons. I do not know how to describe the withdrawal symptoms I experience in those dance-drought periods. I miss the feeling of the music pulsating through my veins, the whispers of forgotten worlds passed on from generation to generation in the DNA of those artists who pull their music from the heavens. I miss the rhythm that speaks to your feet and leave your body with an intense desire to flow across the dance floor and express emotions you weren’t even aware of. I miss being carried off into that dance dimension where I can forget about everything and everybody (yes, everybody….it is bliss).

One of my greatest fears in life is being too old or incapacitated to the degree that I am no longer able to dance. Or, heaven forbid, Tony no longer being able or willing to dance with me. That would be just bad. Really really bad. I cannot imagine life without my dance lessons. What will I do with stresses that build up and flow like poison through my body, accelerating the aging process? I need the dancing to counterbalance that.


1.       It is important to read the energy

Over time Tony has learned to read my energy levels. Most days when I arrive at the studio, I am so tired from a combination of too little sleep and being bombarded the whole day that I feel like a zombie. I can hardly keep my eyes open and feel like the weight of the world is sitting on my shoulders. When he sees I am close to rock bottom, he’ll start us off with something slow like a Rumba, Batchata or a Bolero so that I can be eased into it. He knows that starting off on a salsa would be too much for my weary body. I need to warm up first and allow the music to saturate my soul and lift my spirits, which in turn lifts my body from its exhaustive state. Needless to say, when I feel like a vegetable, Tony tends to find me less willing to learn new steps. My brain just does not want to be challenged by a new sequence of steps. He gets a glare from me if he dares to venture into teaching mode.  There are times though when I know that it is going to take an energetic salsa to kick start me and that a prolonged easing in would simply not get my body to wake up. How does he know what method is going to work tonight? He listens to me, both to what I say verbally as well as to the signals my body gives.


Leaders must run at a pace the system can absorb, otherwise they risk breaking the system. That is a tough one. Learning to exercise patience because the team does not have the capacity to run as fast as you would like it to, can be a difficult pill to swallow. That capacity is determined by a host of things including competence, workload, attitude, agility, etc. This is only becoming increasingly more difficult as stakeholder expectations increase and the world becomes more volatile. Finding the balance between not breaking the system and pushing it hard enough to ensure that the organisation remains on the leading edge and does not fall prey to disruptors, is an art we all have to learn quickly. This is more difficult in some contexts than others. For some it is easy to fire dead wood and hire better equipped teams, but what to do when you are a bit stuck with what you have because of resource constraints? In the South African context, access to talent is a struggle for most. This is of course worsened when leaders are so engrossed in fighting everyday battles that they find themselves with less capacity to invest in their teams.


Leaders should be able to read where their people are at. Overestimating the team’s capacity can lead to failure, resentment, resistance, burnout, disillusionment and people disengaging. One of the hardest things to deal with though is knowing that you have exceeded capacity but being unable to add resources because of a lack of funding – when you rely on the goodwill of the people to remain committed to the vision despite being stretched beyond their capacity. One then has to live in the twilight between guilt as a result of pushing people too far and knowing what the consequences will be if the vision is not fulfilled. It is only a compelling vision and a sense of purpose that will keep people on course in the long run.


I am ashamed to admit that I hardly ever ask myself how willing Tony is to dance with me on a particular night. I don’t often think about how tired he is. (Shameful, I know. Please don’t judge me). The reality is that people often de-humanise those in leadership positions. They need you to be aware of their needs and be ready to adapt to what they demand, but will not often stop to think about the demands on you as a leader. I hardly ever think about Tony’s day and how many different scenarios he had to adapt to with his various students, who all came in with their own needs and level of competence, which determine the extent to which he has to exert himself, and how much of his energy has been sapped. I just need him to dance with me the way I want him to. As a leader one has to deal with the fact that people will make demands on you and forget that you are human too. Reading their energy is a skill that is not often reciprocated. More often than not, people will demand from you without thinking about how much others have already taken from you. That comes with the territory.


2.       When you miscalculate, own your mistake and apologise

One of the characteristics that I admire about Tony is that he is always willing to take responsibility when his lead has not been clear enough (ok, maybe even when it was clear enough and I did not read it well enough). Guys won’t like this, but Tony taught me that when things go wrong it is always the guy’s fault (His words, not mine). Actually, what he is saying is that when things go wrong on the dance floor, the one who is responsible for the lead should take responsibility for the missteps. I’ll go with that, but I’ll say that he is a much better follower than I am. Yes, I sometimes lead too (more about that in a later blog).


Leaders make mistakes. Now, maybe even more so than before, because we have to deal with so much more complexity. It is so difficult to navigate your way through the myriad of issues and make daily calls as you constantly change feet. It is not always easy to accept that you had made a wrong decision or moved too fast or too slow. And, we can be just as hard on ourselves as we are afraid of others judging us. It is that fear of being exposed in front of others that results in many a leader trying to find scapegoats in others. One of the marks of a good leader is someone who is able to own up when they have made the wrong call and being willing to live with the consequences. Reality is that we all periodically find ourselves in that position where we have to choose between being a coward and blaming someone else and saying sorry. Showing that you’re human can be inspiring, as others can see that walking in your shoes is not reserved for super human beings. That they too can reach those heights. But, being able to own up and admit that you’ve made a mistake is also liberating. That liberation does start within self though. Being in denial about your fallibility creates blockages that stunt your growth. That denial also causes us to lead the team to dance off-beat. When Tony realises that I did not understand his lead, he apologises, corrects and brings us back into rhythm. And I forgive him, every time. Even when it was my fault ;-). 


In our twenty odd years of dancing together there were two occasions when he couldn’t catch me in time, and I fell. Yep, they were hard falls. I banged by head on the floor on both occasions. Ironically, one of those occasions was captured on video. I take a lot of risks when I dance with him, because I trust that he will be there to catch me. And he always does. Except for those two occasions when he was a fraction too slow to save me from myself. I can still see the horror and remorse in his eyes. And I can relate. When our decisions or actions adversely affect others, it can be gut wrenching. Knowing that you may have caused pain in others is a difficult thing to process and put behind you. You can either go in denial about your role in their pain or face it and find healing. Sadly too many choose to go in denial, which only creates long term festering wounds. It becomes an invisible burden around the neck that only slows one down. Owning up and taking responsibility is always the cleanest and easiest in the long run, despite it being the most difficult in the short run. It also helps to bring healing to those adversely affected. Own your mistakes, and the truth will set you free. Being able to say I am sorry, is not a weakness. It is a strength.


More about my lessons learnt in my next blog….

Tags:  accountability  apology  consequences  dance  demands. fall  denial  energy  failure  followers  honesty  leader  Leadership  listen  responsibility  wrong decision 

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Comments on this post...

Nokwethemba R. Nkosi says...
Posted Friday, 25 August 2017
True. I believe that if we were to stand and take responsibility for our wrong decisions we could find a chance to meet the better version of ourselves.
Sometimes it not the wrong decisions, just thoughtless decisions which never yield the result we expected. Most of the times we shift the blame to those who either can't defend themselves or to those who always have solutions for our mess. We need leaders who will own it, own their mistakes.
I am just hoping that Leaders are reading these blogs, because there is nothing as excruciating as expecting something from someone who do not know what is expected of them. Watch out for the next generation leaders you are shaping with every keystroke you make here and with your every word that alter our future.

Thank you again. Seating at the edge of my chair for next part
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Zwakele Majola says...
Posted Friday, 01 September 2017
Thanks a lot for your latest creative article; it is quite refreshing. There is a lot I have learned. “Leaders must run at a pace the system can absorb”, cannot be further from truth. “Tony taught me that when things go wrong it is always the guy’s fault”, what a gentleman Tony was. I would like to request that you infuse your next sequel with a little bit of academic literature on leadership theory. By the way you also look exquisite and stylish on the photo.
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Claudelle von Eck says...
Posted Wednesday, 10 January 2018
Thank you for your kind words Nokwethemba and Zwakele. Glad to hear that you're finding value in the blogs. Zwakele, I very specifically steer away from being too academic as these are blogs intended to deal with illustrating the practical issues that you won't easily find in a typical leadership textbook. For a more academic look at leadership, here's a link to my doctoral thesis on leadership:
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