I have always thought that dance holds many metaphors for life. Salsa is no exception, particularly in the lead/follow relationship.

I came across a blog posting that compares the skills required for leading effectively in salsa to leadership in the corporate world— be clear, don’t be a jerk (or being jerky in one’s movements), have a light touch, always be on the lookout to avoid collisions, and “know the difference between indication and demand.”  I think this last one is especially important. A good leader almost never makes demands– their followers trust and respect them enough that a simple indication is sufficient.

Let me complete the metaphor by adding in what I believe to be the attributes of a good follower. It is certainly a more humbling list than what makes a good leader, but let’s face it, you can’t always be the one calling the shots if you’re low on the totem pole at work– and I speak from personal experience. Just as mastering the art of following in dance can be incredibly liberating (paradoxically, yes, but if you have control issues, you know what I am talking about), learning to follow a good leader can have positive results in your own career development. Being a good follower doesn’t mean going limp and unquestioningly following your lead– you must be active and complicit.

  • Let go… trust your partner to lead you. We all have our own ideas about the best way to do something, but a good leader will have a vision. To carry out that vision, s/he needs the trust and complicity of the people that will make it happen. Similarly, my salsa partner is not going to be able to execute that awesome turn pattern unless I allow him to. I have to be active in my complicity– if I go limp, nothing is going to happen, either.
  • Always have your eye on your partner, but keep half an eye out to what is going on around you. Let’s face it, not all leaders have the best floorcraft skills, and even if they do, they can’t always get out of the way of the lumbering, drunken beginner couple bulldozing their way across the floor (see my post on dancefloor collisions). Whether or not you feel you can trust your leader, you still have to look out for yourself and take action when necessary. Similarly, in the work environment, you should always be aware of current events, external factors, and where the job market is going. If you’re always aware, you can avoid harm and take opportunity where you find it.
  • Understand where your lead is giving you room to improvise, and add your own styling in the little spaces between moves, but not at the expense of your connection.This is one lesson I had to learn on my own after many years of dancing. I learned to follow and I developed my own personal style, but never seemed to be able to combine the two successfully. On many occasions, I was so eager to execute a certain shine that I interrupted something the lead was doing. The more I dance, the more I can perceive the little spaces where I can throw in my own little hand gesture, body roll, head toss, or shine. With some leaders, there is not much space at all, with others, there is so much to the point of being excessive. In the working world, a good boss will give you indications or space to apply your own expertise and judgment. I find it very empowering when my own boss asks me to make a decision on something important, and that in turn adds to his leadership currency.
  • If you cannot trust your partner because he is causing injury, invading your personal space, or he is disrespectful, it is time to change leaders.We’ve all had unpleasant dancefloor experiences. I’ve been manhandled, bruised, offended by B.O., groped, and had inappropriate comments. In most cases I can wait it out until the end of the song, but particularly in the case of injury or inappropriate contact, it is best to look out for my own safety and end the dance immediately. If you work in a toxic environment with aggression, threats, or sexual harassment, it is time to change jobs