Teaching Leaders To Dance

By Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

In an earlier post, we gave a very brief account of a major arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s School of Business, designed to create new behaviors in a group of senior project managers in the oil and gas exploration industry. The aim was to create a new culture of ‘open-mindedness’: the ability to form more effective working relationships with the other stakeholders involved in major capital projects and an increased ability to ‘improvise’ – to react quickly and effectively to rapidly changing situations.

One of the authors of this article, Dr Mark Powell, chairman of The Human Energy Organisation, designed and ran the four-year programme, giving successive delegates an intense, week-long exposure to artists of all kinds. Dr Powell is himself a championship-winning Latin ballroom dancer, having won the over-35 World Championship for two years running while working as a partner at KPMG. He argues that people’s core behaviours are not easily changed by new information – by ‘being told stuff’ – and that we need a gut experience, a real ‘ah-ha!’ moment of understanding, to be able to internalise something sufficiently to create enduring new behaviour patterns. Working at close quarters with top-flight performing artists has the potential to create such moments of insight. This article describes how delegates to the Oxford progamme worked with world-class competitive Latin ballroom dancers.

The connection

Sessions begin with a short routine by the dancers. Dance that looks wonderful on stage or screen has even greater impact at close quarters; the speed, agility and precision of top dancers takes the breath away. The subsequent series of exercises and demonstrations set out to give delegates some understanding of the key mindsets and approaches that dancers use to create winning performances.

In competitive dance, there is much focus on the quality of ‘the connection’ between two dancers. It comes out of their intense awareness of each other’s behavior in the course of the performance and the subtlety of their interaction.

As an exercise, delegates are asked to pair up and put their hands forward, palms facing outwards. Each delegate puts their hands against the other’s, increasing the weight transferred until it is uncomfortable for the other partner. As they ease off, there comes a point at which each partner can no longer feel the other’s weight; they have lost ‘the connection’ in a physical sense. Moving around in simple ways while trying to maintain the correct weight of connection is difficult, but tends to lead to a number of ‘ah-ha!’ moments from delegates.

Dancers are not in physical contact throughout the whole of any routine; the connection must be maintained visually. Dancers talk about ‘looking and seeing’: keeping constantly and precisely aware of what their partner is experiencing and signalling.

Discussion turns to levels of genuine interaction in the workplace. Delegates experiment with maintaining higher levels of eye contact than usual while chatting to their colleagues. This is usually slightly uncomfortable, prompting further discussion of the typical level of ‘connection’ between colleagues at work.

Using ‘the connection’ for complex improvisation

The dancers perform a short, unrehearsed routine. Dancers with good connection are able to improvise astonishingly complex routines without any prior discussion. They explain to the delegates the convention in ballroom dancing that the man ‘leads’ and so is able to initiate moves that are instantly grasped and executed by their partner, but also stress that the lead is often ‘shared’ and that the woman dancer may initiate a move. This shared leadership between expert partners enables them to improvise high-quality routines that would require hours of rehearsal by less well-connected dancers.

The dancers also show how leadership must be ‘allowed’. The physical connection that was demonstrated in the weight-sharing exercise can become ‘push-pull’. They perform a short routine in which the man ignores his partner’s responses and ‘pushes’ her around the dance floor. The effect is immediately obvious and is ugly to watch; the dance has been ruined aesthetically.

Absolute trust

The key issue of trust is dramatically demonstrated when the dancers perform a few lifts and catches. The dancers explain that the trust is actually absolute, not relative: ‘a high degree of trust’ is not good enough – a moment’s doubt and hesitation can lead, paradoxically, to accidents. Discussion turns to typical levels of trust between colleagues at work and to the advantages that higher levels of trust would bring.



The art in what we do

Finally, the dancers explore the issue of ‘artistry’ – the aesthetic elements that raise a competitive routine above mere technical excellence. Because competition is so fierce, last year’s winning artistry will not be enough to win this year’s championship: dancers are constantly looking for the new piece of magic that will lift their routine out of the ordinary – even when the ‘ordinary’ is technically astounding. Delegates consider whether there is scope for artistry in their own performances at work.

True ensemble behavior

The common thread that runs through all performances that involve more than one person is ensemble behaviour. Groups of performing artists put on a winning performance together, or they fail. Only by helping you to perform brilliantly can I hope to be part of a winning performance.

The focus on ‘connection’ in these dance sessions helped to engender, at an emotional, gut level, a new awareness of the centrality of partnership and team work, and the fact that this depends on ‘being there for others’: reacting positively and supportively to whatever partners are experiencing and signalling in the attempt to deliver a winning performance together. Issues of ‘shared and allowed’ leadership were also key, as was the consequent ability to improvise brilliantly in the face of rapidly changing circumstances.

Embracing a ‘dance’ culture

  • Quality of connection is key: great performers react to each other in the moment, subtly and precisely
  • Great connection also enables brilliant improvisation
  • Leadership is shared, allowed and serves the overall performance
  • Trust is absolute and taken for granted; lack of trust is fatal
  • Winning performances are aesthetically wonderful as well as being technically perfect


The business novel, Perform To Win, by Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford, gives a fictionalised account of Mark’s arts-based leadership development programme: