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Leadership is a Dance — Stretch First, Leap Later

Learning to be a leader is a lot like learning to dance, and ultimately, becoming the choreographer. But you need to look (and stretch!) before you leap.

A long time ago, before I became a coach and entrepreneur, I spent time as a choreographer. I’ve always been a person with many passions — too many, I once thought. My interests and talents were numerous, confusing, and difficult to reconcile. My identity was fragmented and I blamed myself for being a shape too odd to fit the holes I encountered.

I still love choreography, and I am still very involved though not directly as the choreographer through my film and theatre production company Duchess Amina Z. After many years, I can see clearly how this part of my identity feeds into all others. I’ve realized that dance and leadership are correlated in a beautiful way that can be inspirational to anyone looking to find success and realize their dreams.

Today, I run my own socially conscious digital company and help high-achievers uncover their creative potential. I’m exercising leadership skills and helping others do the same, which upon reflection is not unlike being a choreographer.

Learning to be a leader has been a dance in its own right; it is a journey full of twists and turns for budding, aspiring, and evolving leaders, too. It takes discipline and stretching to achieve the weightless grace of a dancer, and even more to create and direct the moves personally.

We all have the potential to be leaders in some capacity, though it takes direction, patience and creativity, among other key assets. Here’s how dancing can frame the slow but elegant transformation from unsure wanderer to confident leader:

Always stretch first

Stretching is an important activity for all athletes, dancers included. It helps you to achieve a wider sense of motion and prevent injury or muscle soreness associated with moving too quickly, too soon.

As with dance, so goes life. Personally and professionally, it’s unwise to jump right into duties you are unprepared to excel at mentally or physically. Stretching in this context is more akin to identifying and exercising traits associated with your goals — and doing so every day. This way, you will begin to tone the muscles that make a leader and eventually start gaining recognition for your abilities.

There are a number of professional stretches you will have to do over the course of your career. Most people only use a small fraction of their ability, and rarely strive to reach their full potential. They have little or no desire to stretch. There’s no tension (required like a catapult) to stretch and launch further out. But as I like to say, God’s gift to us is potential; our gift to God is developing it. How do we do that? By getting out of our comfort zone. By stretching continually: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. You can do it — just don’t forget to take deep breaths and relax.

Facing the music

Before, I mentioned I was encountering holes I didn’t fit into. Part of the problem was that I was in the wrong territory — 9-5 jobs were not for me — but a bigger part of the problem was that I was wandering without aim. If your direction is not clear, then you aren’t really dancing, but ambling along to an imaginary rhythm.

When it’s said in life that “you have to face the music,” it’s often presented as a bad thing. In reality, what could be better than finally turning to face the music that will define your life’s soundtrack? For me, facing the music was a revelation, and it was only then I started moving confidently toward my calling.

Dancers must listen openly and earnestly. They must hook into a song’s rhythm if they want to get the movements just right. Becoming a leader — in any capacity — also requires listening, though not as much to music (though it can’t hurt) than to loved ones that genuinely care, as well as mentors and coaches. It means finding a rhythm that puts fire in your veins and ignites your passion, then following it with great care to its logical conclusion.

Look before you leap

If you face the music and immediately attempt the lindy hop you could be in some trouble. Advanced dancers are capable of some incredible moves that most of us could only dream of executing. Similarly, Jobs and Bezos didn’t build Apple or Amazon in a day. Which should be no surprise — it took longer for Rome, too.

Smart leaders plan ahead. Way, way ahead! Improvisation is a helpful skill in business and in dance — thinking on your feet, as it were — but it pales in comparison to the value of strategy. Looking before you leap means carefully plotting not just your next move, but your next 10 moves, whether as a company or an individual. Even better, know where you will move if something goes wrong by plotting alternate paths. You only really have control over yourself, so if someone else (be it business or dance partner) makes a wrong step you’ll need to be ready to deal with the fallout. You might even call this kind of move a pivot.

Practice makes perfect

So, you’ve memorized your steps. You’re dancing alone, dancing with partners, dancing with a group. Maybe you’re even singing too — in which case, congrats, you are officially a double threat!

It’s easy to feel powerful once you’re in your groove. But even as your muscle memory allows movements to seem second nature, only practice will bring out your true and most valuable potential. Remember that if you get complacent, or take too long of a break from the demands of your passion, you can get rusty and falter. Not everything is like riding a bike. Most things you have to keep at if you want to go the distance.

So while “practice makes perfect” may seem trite, or even boring and repetitive, know that this wisdom stems from reality. It is especially true if you are leading a team that relies on your wisdom and expertise. It’s one thing to be an expert dancer and quite another to teach others, which demands full trust. And you won’t earn trust unless you are keeping at your practice and demonstrating continuously what makes you worth following.

Getting creative

Once you have become a trusted leader, you are in a great position to think outside the box. You’ve put in the hard work, learned the fundamentals, and earned respect and admiration. But if you’re just technically skilled, there is a possibility that you will plateau. The difference between dancing and choreographing, as between a manager and innovator, is a thriving well of creativity and the ability to express it.

One of my key goals as a coach is to help my clients discover their creative potential. I say “creative” not just to tack on an adjective, but because I love (and live) creativity and can’t emphasize enough how important it is to success, and yes, visionary leadership. It can sometimes be hard to exercise creativity the way you want to when you are still working toward a goal within the confines of an existing system. But you have to learn the rules in order to break or even bend them. Creativity is all about bending the rules without breaking them, as a svelte ballerina bends her limbs without injury on stage.

Choreographers innovate by creating unique performances that evoke emotion, often by fusing and guiding the talents of many. Leaders innovate with unique business models, products or strategies — always by fusing and guiding the talents of many.

Show, don’t tell

Great dance performance tell stories, or invoke feeling, just through the purity of movement, music and theatrics, however grand or minimal. Rarely is there a narrator telling you how to feel, or footnotes explaining why the choreography works the way it does. It shows and does not tell. And great leadership should, too.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be able to explain what makes you unique, talented, and worthy of achieving your goal. After all, a dancer can tell you all about pirouettes or moonwalking. But when it comes down to it, good leadership, like great dance, is something that is experienced, felt and demonstrated through action more than words.

I spend a lot of time articulating guidance these days, which can feel a bit like telling. Such is the nature of coaching, though I try to show as much as I can through my actions and decisions and encourage others to do the same. More than anything, I hope that dreamers know that they have the potential to do great things, even if it takes some telling to get them to show it.

My love of choreography has certainly served me better than I could have imagined — I ‘ve even choreographed a business musical, an expression of creativity I humbly take pride in. Still I hope you’ll benefit from the above nuggets of wisdom, from the importance of stretching to the role of innovation, which I’ve experienced first-hand over the years. Whether it is your dream to dance or lead, or something else entirely, the path is well-worth taking one step at a time. 

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