As a beginner tango student years ago in New York City, I was lucky to have a gifted teacher who understood how important psychology is to the dance. In tango, as in all leadership roles, understanding the opposite point of view is essential.
Pablo Pugliese began studying tango when he was nine years old, the son of two legendary teachers who shaped the modern form of the dance, especially by elevating the role of the follower. One day, Pablo was teaching our class the arrastre, or “drag,” a step in which the leader blocks then drags the follower’s foot into position.
Pablo told a story about a spat between his parents, when his father insisted on going to a tango club that his mother did not like. So when they got there and Mingo attempted to lead a drag, Esther refused to budge her foot, so he tripped. When he complained, she told him that’s what he deserved for being so stubborn.
That story went to the heart of the tango: the importance of communication, respect and negotiation. “If a man and a woman can sit in a café for three hours and not come to an agreement, how do you think it is they can do it in the three minutes of the tango?” Pablo asked us, not entirely rhetorically.
I gave up the tango over a decade ago, after a falling out with my dance partner that ended with a melodramatic gesture involving a tin of cinnamon breath mints. (The intended message apparently was that I’d have to find someone else to carry them around for me.)
But, as the song goes, the truth is I never left the dance. So when I learned that the 2017 World Economic Forum on Latin America would take place in Argentina this April, with the theme “Responsible and Responsive Leadership,” it was the perfect excuse to put my tango shoes back on.
The Argentine dance holds secrets to becoming a responsible and responsive leader: two-way communication, setting a clear direction, and building the foundations that allow intuition and innovation to flourish.
I reached out to Pablo, who is now based in Montreal. He put me in touch with Carla Marano, a tango dancer and teacher, to organize a workshop on tango and leadership at the Annual Summit of Young Global Leaders and Alumni in Buenos Aires.
Carla and her team started the group out by pairing up teams around the room. One partner closed their eyes while the other steered them around the room with a gentle push. “Don’t walk just for the sake of walking,” she warned us.
As you might imagine for a group chosen for their leadership qualities, the follower’s role was not easy. Several participants, upon opening their eyes, commented on how much harder it was than they thought to read the leader’s intentions, instead of just charging ahead on their own. That was frustrating for the leaders, too, as they worked to give clearer signals to keep the followers from doing their own thing.
This simple exercise taught a powerful lesson in just a few minutes: leadership is a two-way conversation. The best leaders read their followers and set them up for success, by sending a clear message and anticipating and avoiding possible obstacles. Good followers pay close attention to the leader to keep the partnership strong.
The workshop brought me back to the lessons I learned when I was dancing at least three times a week and learning how to navigate the leadership styles of classmates and dance partners at milongas, or dance halls, in New York City.
These are the three most important lessons:
1) Understanding another point of view is essential. Leaders lead better when they understand where their follower is coming from. “To be able to lead properly you want to understand how it feels to be led,” Pablo said. You cannot lead without having a sense of your follower; and the way the leader looks best is when the follower looks fabulous.
In the early days of tango, women were not allowed to participate in practice sessions, so men had no choice but to dance with other men. “If you wanted to learn from somebody you had to follow to learn to lead,” Pablo said. The result was that from the beginning, leaders had the tools for better understanding of both roles.
Indeed, the New York City dance studio where I met Pablo required all beginners - women and men - to practice both the leader and the follower roles. Students tended to separate into traditional gender roles as they advanced to intermediate roles.
But as they got even better, many students - especially women - went back and re-learned the basics of leading. This strengthened their skills even more, not to mention helping to ensure that there were enough leaders and followers.
These women students were inspired in part by four female instructors who created an all-women tango troupe, Tango Mujer, which shattered conventional gender roles and inspired dancers to approach tango from new perspectives.
2) Without a clear leader, the follower cannot shine. The leader sets the foundation, and the follower "embellishes" with ochos (serpentine steps), boleos (kicks) and more. But the leader also cannot lead if he does not set the follower up for success, by sensing which foot the follower’s weight is on, the follower’s skill level, and of course by making sure he doesn’t lead the follower into another couple or some other obstacle.
3) Intuition goes hand in hand with communication. Being mindful from the outset, setting good foundations and practicing prepares you to make decisions and act intuitively. Mastering the basics gives you the tools to improvise.
In times of uncertainty, having a good foundation is essential. Emergency room doctors, firefighters, airline pilots and other professionals practice for thousands of hours so that they can rely on instinct to carry out basic actions in a crisis.
While lives may not be at stake on the dance floor, the same principles apply: learning the basics so that they are second nature makes it easier not just to avoid collisions but also to do more advanced steps and execute the embellishments – the kicks, twists, and other flourishes that make the tango so memorable.