Boyden Executive Search

What can Leaders learn from Dancers used to playing leading and following roles

By Maria Tavares Leal, Manager Leadership Consulting

With almost 10 years’ experience in Leadership Consulting and 16 years as a Tango dancer and teacher, I find this artistic activity very inspiring for the challenges currently faced by leaders.

To quote a common saying: “It takes two to tango”, and it also only takes one follower to make a leader. Thus, leadership dynamics start with a two-person relationship, that can and hopefully will grow into a bigger team, but the starting point is that unique connection between two individuals that needs to be nourished and cherished. Much has been written about leadership – strategies, techniques, derailers and so on - but it is the distinctive personal style of a leader, that once discovered and empowered, that concretizes effective leadership.

Nevertheless, leaders can use a great deal of inspiration to face their challenges and non-directly related activities, such as Tango, can be an insightful trigger to reflect on current leadership practices and activate new ones. There are two pre-defined roles in Tango: the leader and the follower and what observers view as something that represents deep connection, reciprocity and elegance takes a lot of hours of practice by dancers and is based on a set of well-established agreements that help leaders and followers to perform their roles to the best of their ability.

These agreements are passed from teachers to students, in more or less explicit ways, and they greatly facilitate what each leader and follower can expect from each other:




Respect the Distance

Define and redefine the distance



Invite, don’t push

Be present

Be patient

Challenge yourself

Interpret the music

Accept suggestions

Feedback on feelings


1. Distance

It is the follower who defines the distance he/she wants to be led from. He/she may prefer to be close and receive specific and unambiguous directions, or she/he may prefer to be further away. This may also change over time and may even change during the same tango, depending on the movements, if they are more or less demanding, or if the follower is confident in the techniques required for a certain sequence. Additionally, depending on the level of trust, an aspect that takes time to build and that is built together, the distance that the follower feels comfortable with may also change. The leader needs to pay attention, show respect and dance accordingly. Respecting the distance can be particularly challenging for the leader, especially with diverse followers because each one of them will have specific needs in what concerns the leaders’ style. Situational leadership is very much aligned with this aspect.  

Don’t impose your way of leading, more or less close, invest time and dedication to understanding what your employees need. Like this you will gain their trust.

2. Anticipate

Starting to dance tango is harder for the leading role at the beginning as leaders need to think and anticipate their own movements as well as the signs that they need to give the follower, for the follower to react accordingly. For an intermediate or advanced level and when leaders are technically solid, it becomes harder for the follower since he/she has to be very quick at interpreting and following the signs. Anticipating is hard but becomes natural when practiced regularly. For the follower, being able to listen actively to the leader and get carried away smoothly is also something that takes time and confidence in oneself and the other.

“Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” is essential to be able to anticipate, Additionally, don’t make assumptions about other people’s behavior, assumptions will block your empathy skills.

3. Invite, don’t push

No follower wants to be pushed around the dancing floor, no matter how beautiful or challenging the dancing movements are. The signs that the leader gives to the follower are invitations to certain movements, but the follower is always in a position to reject and not corroborate certain ways of dancing. On the other hand, for the leader to be precise in his/her directions, the follower needs to make himself/herself feel present for the leader. He/she can’t be too light or the leader will not know how to lead, neither too hard making it very difficult for the leader to lead.

The way you ask is just as important as the content, even with a high level of confidence.

4. Patience and Challenge

There is a balance point supporting the flow of movements which varies from one pair to another, and it can take a lot of practice to discover it, but once discovered everything becomes easier even unknown movements or sequences. Dancers often give up on each other before they reach that point. In these cases, patience and determination can be differentiating factors. Accepting that there are things that will not happen precisely when the leaders would like them to happen and instead focusing on creating the support and levers to make things happen when followers are ready, requires immersing in and acting from a different point of view. On the follower’s side, the willingness to be challenged can also be demanding, but it is essential for development to happen.

Focus on the relation you want to create, more than on solving a certain problem, this demeanor and attitude will always be a good guide to the leadership style to adopt.

5. Interpret the music

Frequently dancers become excited about a new movement, a new way of dancing but they forget the reason why they are dancing, the aspect that gives rise to any dance – music. When the leader forgets to listen to the music, he/she can make spectacular movements that do not respond to the real needs of the context and that can even be considered unreasonable. Being in tune with the music (with the context) is essential for any movement, from the simplest to the most complex, to make sense. For the follower, accepting suggestions is a good starting point to discover other possibilities of dance, interpretation, movements that he/she has never actually experienced before. Furthermore, I usually tell my tango students that innovation and useful creativity appear when their technique is solid and both dancers speak the same language.

The why is important, be strongly connected to the surroundings too, and don’t forget that innovations can be useful not because they are innovations but because they are aligned with the context and needs.

6. Feedback on feelings

Although dancing is a form of non-verbal expression, the momentary breaks between tangos can be decisive for the next dance to be better than the previous one. When these moments are filled with honest feedback focused on what felt good and bad, as well as on what could be different to make the dance more comfortable and enriching for both, artistic expression goes beyond technical mastery and approaches the sublime in human nature.

Whether we show them or not, feelings shape the way we are, the way we behave, they are valid for what they are and not for their causes, so embrace them and take them into account.

Finally, both in dancing tango and in organizations, when we focus on what we are creating together, and not so much on ourselves or on others, we achieve something bigger than us.

Practice makes perfect. #Shall we dance?

About the author

Maria is a Leadership specialist with over ten years of experience in Leadership Development, Leadership Assessment, Executive Coaching and Culture Change. Maria is part of the leadership consulting services team in Portugal and partners across the firm, working with clients to develop high-performance teams. Maria is a mother of three, a professional Tango teacher and author and co-author of several books. Maria has a degree in Philosophy, an Executive Master in Business and is taking a certification in Executive Coaching.


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