9 Leadership Lessons I Learned from my Dance Instructor

I guess you can learn about leadership just about anywhere if you happen to be looking for it.  Last Thursday evening, I wasn’t even looking and it hit me square in the face.

My wife and I had signed up for dance lessons (think basic ballroom stuff – definitely not Dancing with the Stars!).  But as I watched the instructor get the class underway, he demonstrated several great leadership lessons worth emulating.  Read on and I’ll tell you what he did, and how the same approach can help you as a leader.

9 Leadership Lessons I learned from my Dance Instructor

Not Your Typical Dance Instructor

You should probably know up front that Frank Hancock of Hancock Dance is not the typical ballroom dance instructor you might imagine.  He certainly is a trim, distinguished gentleman in his mid-50s.  But his firm handshake, direct sustained eye contact, absolute confidence and assertive manner tells you there is more to him.

It turns out that before starting the dancing gig, he spent 30 years in the United States Army Infantry leading Soldiers in all sorts of situations.  He retired as a full Colonel.  At times during class it felt a little like we were learning basic marching skills as he barked out the cadence.  But without a doubt we are learning to dance, and actually having fun with it.  Check out what he did to lead and teach the class, and what we can learn from him to become better leaders (and better dancers!).

Worthy of Note

1. Take Charge Immediately and Confidently. We were milling about before class, but as soon as the clock ticked to 6:00, we all heard him loudly and clearly:

“Ok everybody, welcome to Basic Ballroom Dancing.  I’d like everyone to line up along these two walls, girls on this side, guys on that side, facing each other.” 

With those simple, clear instructions, class was rapidly underway.  By starting off with a concise request that got people moving, he took charge, both mentally and physically.  His action also established an immediate sense of organization.  Getting people organized and moving is a great quick win that makes it easier to lead in the moments to come.

When leading, step forward, be confident, and get people physically moving and organized in some way as soon as possible. Click To Tweet

If you are interested in learning more about this idea, here’s a blog post and also a short video that go into greater detail and offer suggestions on getting some quick wins of your own.

2.  Orient the Team and Set the Vision. After a very brief introduction, he gave us all a sense of where we were headed as a group – what dances we would learn, what the progression would be.  And then he grabbed his partner, and briefly showed us what good dancing could look like.  He not only told us what we were trying to accomplish, he showed us our potential future selves.   In doing so, he connected what he was getting ready to teach us to an outcome we all valued:  looking graceful (or at least not too oafish) on the dance floor.

Set the vision and orient the team early; show them what success looks like. Click To Tweet

Here’s a little more on setting the vision (video) and identifying goals (blog post).

3.  Lead by example. And then we began.  As he introduced each dance, he first gave us a little background, then demonstrated the full step with his partner to music so we could see what we were trying to achieve.  By sharing his knowledge of the dance and then personally showing us how, he was demonstrating his competence.  And since he was the first person to dance in that room, it suddenly made it OK for the rest of us to dance, too; awkwardness gone.

People are more likely to follow you if you show you are both able and willing to do what you ask of them. Click To Tweet

4.  Over-Communicate Using Multiple Channels. For that hour of class, he was in nearly constant chatter mode.  Most often it was about the dances we were learning, how to do them, and common mistakes to avoid. Usually, he was just explaining what we were doing, but he also included stories, background, and humor. He personally demonstrated the moves with his partner, and he also had two assistants; at times he would have them dance and explain what we were seeing.  By reinforcing his message in a variety of ways both audibly and visually, we had constant reinforcement of the vision he had put before us.

Continuously reinforce your message and the vision by communicating repeatedly in multiple ways. Click To Tweet

5.  Engage with your Team. Despite his continuous chatter, the communication was not all one-way.  He was everywhere, asking questions, making corrections, watching what we did, and getting feedback from the class.  He knew how effective he was because he was there every step of the way, fully involved in the process and fully aware of where we were as individuals within the class.

Engage your teammates; seek to understand them as individuals by asking, listening, and watching. Click To Tweet

6.  Delegate Key Tasks. As the leader, he didn’t try to do everything himself – he had help.  Someone else was there to collect checks and get us registered at the beginning of class.  He had two other experienced dancers with him to help demonstrate, and to assist with giving us pointers.  Trying to do it all yourself is a mistake new leaders often make.  Share the work…..build the team.

ID the tasks to be done and assign teams to do them; leave yourself free to oversee all of it and to be where most needed. Click To Tweet

Here’s a short video series that digs deeper into the concept of delegating.

7.  Be prepared. He came ready to work, and when the clock hit 6:00 PM, we were off to the races.  His laptop had all the music queued up, the speakers were plugged in, the sound system had been checked.  There was no fumbling with equipment, searching for paperwork, or trying to think of what to do next.  He had done his homework and he was ready.  His preparedness gave us confidence in him and his leadership of the class.

Do your homework and be ready; your preparation will give you added confidence to lead and demonstrate you are the right person for the job. Click To Tweet

8.  Empower the Team. Near the end of class he did something else that is worthy of note: he empowered us.  We were in class to learn to dance, but he told us how to get to music and instructional videos on his web site, how to get DVDs, and other resources so that we could practice on our own and continue to improve.  He wasn’t trying to make us dependent on him; he was working to make us successfully independent.

Focus on training more leaders, not more followers. Click To Tweet

9.  Use Humor. It’s OK to have fun, and he let us know that early on.  Despite his take-charge approach, he kept it light by telling jokes and short stories that brought more than a few smiles.  At one point while teaching us the Tango he said it helps if we “pretend it’s a NASCAR race – keep to the outside and go left.”

People work better together when they are smiling; make it OK to have fun. Click To Tweet

Leadership Dance Lessons – The Takeaway

You can find great leadership lessons just about anywhere you look.  And good leaders are always learning and working to improve their craft.

A prepared, knowledgeable, confident leader who establishes control and organization early, and continuously communicates the vision is off to a strong start.  Be like my dance instructor.  Do these things, and your team will be ready to follow your lead.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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