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On the art of followship


Last year, I found my passion for swing dance (namely Lindy Hop) and, to my surprise, in 100+ hours of classes, I have learned more about leadership than I improved my dancing skills. The analogy between Lindy Hop and management practices intrigued me ever since and inspired me to transfer insights from the dancefloor into the office.

In this post, I share my thoughts on the mistakenly neglected art of followship through the lens of a swing dancer. [1] After a warm-up that will provide some background, I emphasise three ingredients that leadership professionals may pick-up from swing dancers when thinking of effective followship: active listening, thoughtful creativity, and uncompromising flow.

Lindy Hop 101

Without going into much detail about the roots and spirit of Lindy Hop, it is worth mentioning two distinct features that relate to the concept of this post. First, Lindy Hop is a rhythmic partner dance that gravitates around two major themes: the relationship between leader and follower and the communication between them. [2] Second, the dancers’ roles are not tied to gender, so that you won’t be surprised to observe two men dancing together or women leading.

When I started dancing as a follower, I received two pieces of advice that were helpful to build up the confidence I needed to enjoy the dance without over-thinking:

  1. Just follow
  2. If it fails, blame the leader!

Over time though, both pieces of advice proved themselves terribly wrong because they ignored the importance of shared responsibility as a key success factor. Number 1 neglects the follower’s role to keep the communication alive by provoking reaction and inducing variation. Number 2 removes an important part of the dance’s joyful spirit which lives from the ability to transform ‘mistakes’ into ‘variations’.

I reached my follower’s peak of frustration when I realised that my followship was objectively deteriorating with each additional step I learned. I tried hard to become great, but the communication between the leaders and me disrupted. Then, I found out that followship is not just about getting the moves right: a good follower proactively inspires the dance by mastering the skills of active listening, thoughtful creativity, and uncompromising flow.

A great follower is an active listener

Every leader has its unique style and interprets the music accordingly. Great followers, in turn, listen to understand the leader’s interpretation and merge their performance into the flow. Hence, the art of followship lies in the ability to be proactive within the boundaries of the lead. My followship deteriorated, despite a growing repertory, because I ignored these boundaries and interpreted the lead instead of listening to it. With beginner’s overconfidence, I anticipated the next moves without taking the time to understand the underlying intention. I did not only miss the point but wrecked the flow of the dance.

Great followers actively listen to the leader’s signals, always ready to adjust to the unexpected. In turn, this focused attention allows leaders to remain calm in their communication. Active listening becomes the glue for a trustful dance in which the follower embraces the uncertainty of not knowing what comes next. Perfect synchrony between leader and follower can therefore never be the goal. Instead, the art lies in the unperceived delay of the follower. In the end, a leader may always speed up a slow follower but will struggle to balance a dance with someone who continuously tries to anticipate. 

A great follower expresses thoughtful creativity

Thoughtful creativity complements active listening in the way that it adds the follower’s voice to the dance without kidnapping it. Great followers will adequately use the space they receive, and sometimes even claim space to contribute in a thoughtful way that complements the lead. They identify the sweet spot in which to add variations – a slick swivel or a twisting step – without disrupting the flow.

What distinguishes an effective from an ineffective follower is enthusiastic, intelligent, and self-reliant participation—without star billing—in the pursuit of an organizational goal. (Robert Kelley, HBR 11/1988) 

Proactive followers contribute with their voice without ignoring the existing or disturbing the lead. In turn, great leaders acknowledge the value of thoughtful creativity and abstain from micromanaging their partner’s steps. This teamwork of shared responsibility releases energy that will fascinate the audience.

A great follower supports the lead with uncompromising flow

Even the most significant leader sometimes faces challenges, gets distracted and struggles to think ahead. Since great followers stay true to their character, they will back up the lead by keeping a solid rhythm and steady flow. This grounded confidence will allow the lead to find back on track and regain inspiration.

“If my lead doesn’t clearly communicate what to do, or if I don’t clearly get the message,” she said, “I still have to choose something. Even after I discover that my choice might be wrong, to a degree, I need to stick with it and work within it.” (Laura Glaess in Bobby White’s blog)

Great followers understand when to take decisions that are crucial for continuity. And, they have the spirit of owning the decision and going with it. A stable connection nurtured by mutual trust in the other’s abilities will restore the flow. Hence, in moments of uncertainty, both dancers can prove their character, share responsibility and thereby create the magic of Lindy Hop.

The nutshell to take home

In a leader-centric world, corporations underuse their true potential because they neglect followers as the leaders’ backbone. Each employee can become a great follower and support the larger purpose. Followship is indeed a skill that is worth improving, so when will we start offering followship courses?

Good leadership is the stuff of countless courses, workshops, books, and articles. Everyone wants to understand just what makes leaders tick—the charismatic ones, the retiring ones, and even the crooked ones. Good followership, by contrast, is the stuff of nearly nothing. (Barbara Kellerman HBR 12/ 2007)

With this post, I invite you to re-think our approach to the art of followship and take a moment to praise great followers around you.

[1] Thanks to Marc S. Ramos for motivating me to write this article and his inspiring keynote at the CU Summit in Berlin.

[2] Bobby White’s blog and book have been a great source of inspiration for this article and my followship.

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