Sunday, October 2, 2011

Tango as an Analogy for Business

Imagine that you return to visit your old office.  You resigned because of your heavy-handed boss.  He has since become a wonderful tango dancer, and it has transformed him.  Why?  What would you imagine to be different about him? 

Let me guess: It would NOT be because he now knows how hard it is to be a follower.  Instead I would guess that perhaps he now knows about partnership and how the mission (like music) really guides everyone.  He might be sensitive to distinct roles that work together wonderfully.

So when the corporate minds start noticing tango, great things might start happening?  Right?  Well, not quite.

Ira Chaleff's book The Courageous Follower has great ideas for the business world, and at some level tango can help in understanding the outcome he seeks as "partnership"; however tango as partnership should be applied and not the lead-and-follow analogy.

The tango community itself  has done a poor job developing the words to describe the magic of the distinct roles of men and women in tango.  Will the business world get a sense of what tango truly is if we have not?

In English we did not consciously decide to take "lead and follow" from ballroom over terms in Spanish.  But we did.  We didn't know better.  It is true that "seguir" (to follow) is used in Spanish.  But the word for the male role is to accompany his companion (compañera), not "follower."  Some, like Murat Erdemsel, has suggested we can drop the "f" and her role becomes "allower."  That's better.  I know this to be true.  Does she allow me to pause with the music?  Does she allow me to dance more than one or two steps on her left side before forcing me to go to the other side (like all of her teachers have told her to do)?  The other side to this is that I must also allow her to hear and respond to the music; so even this word does not encapsulate the spirit what the Yin-Energy of tango is.

Sharna, who is quoted by the speaker, once told me that the woman's role is best described as the "keeper of possibilities."  That's better than "follower" too.  The problem this term has, just like "allower," is that it works well with both roles.  The "keeper of possibilities" pertains to me just as much to my partner.  So, it is true that the distinctive roles are very well signified by "lead and follow."  But it ends there as an analogy, especially with each developmental step away from being a rank beginner.

We have so easily adopted all sorts of Spanish words less important than the the magic of the distinct roles of men and women in tango.  We could have said "tango dance" for milonga.  Or "figure eights" for ochos.  The list goes on of all the Spanish words we use.  Why don't we use the word compañero and compañera?

One can try to deny it but lead-and-follow as a concept is at its base is a military analogy.  It seemed to make sense in dance.  However, the magic of dance is poorly served by this analogy.  Today in the dance world and even tango we not only have a great deal of energy protecting these terms with dancers.  We have classes on both roles under these poorly chosen terms.  Are the roles distinct as lead-and-follow? Yes!  But being distinct as does not make them become these things.

Unfortunately tango classes are leading the way in defining this word "followership" for the rest of the world.  The business world, very conservative roles in marriage, the military, dictatorships and others can benefit by using the word we promulgate and have created.  The world can turn to tango as a great way of describing subordination!  ¡Que lástima!  Instead, shouldn't the world turn to the magic of this wonderful, improvisational dance to understand partnership?

Business and all sorts of human interaction could learn from the magic of dance and especially the innovative and extemporaneous dance that Argentine tango is.  However, the word "followership"used in tango is mistaken because the words were philosophically incorrect and limiting as descriptors of what tango is.  It is true that all words limit what they describe, but "lead and follow" lead the way as obstacles for understanding the magic of tango.  We couldn't choose two more misleading words!

I respect the outcome of Ira Chafleff's book, which is to get corporate leaders and subordinates to a state of partnership.  Yet, he is one among many who overstate the difficulty of one role over the other. He ends up saying that being a follower is harder than being a leader.  He quotes a scholar and one a tango teacher.  So what!  Followership is truly harder the more heavy-handed a leaders is.  Consider your worst boss.  Following him was more complex than his leading and more difficult.  Now let's consider great leaders: Kennedy, King, Gandi, Buddah, Moses, Jesus.  They had the easier role as leaders?  We need more than just a scholar and a tango teacher to persuade us of this theory.  Many tango teachers agree with Ira Chafleff and Sharna that the "follower" has the more difficult job.  Surely a tanguera's work is harder if she has a tanguero who is heavy-handed.  Has he taken his role as a "leader" too seriously instead of the magic of partnership within distinct roles?   Contrary to Mr Chafleff's hypothesis, even a female beginner who has no idea about her role can be taken down a magical path of dance Nirvana with a man who is sensitive to her abilities and a man who truly listens to the music.  Such a compañero will give her wonderful clues of where he will take her next.  Is her role at that moment harder?  These comparisons of "whose role is harder" is sadly counter-productive and do not describe the magic of tango as I experience it.  Rather, these expressions come out of the world of who-is-better or who-is-working-harder -- the world of discrimination against others.  This is the nonsense that women say to each other when men are not listening or men say when women are not in the room.  Nonsense!

In conclusion, the most important issue here is that a lead-and-follow is not what is happening in tango.  Men and women accompany (acompañar) each other on the dance floor.  The music leads.  Tango is far more magical than the leader-follower mistake analogy could ever convey.  Anyone who has experienced the magic of tango, I believe, must feel this in their heart.   Join the many who reject poorly chosen expressions to describe tango.  Join us in ushering a better way of conveying what tango is to beginners and even to ourselves.  The end of using lead-and-follow is near.

Also see an earlier post that used the full well-done video clip that is seen only in part above.


  1. Did you read both of Ira's books - The Art of Followership and The Courageous Follower? I didn't get the impression at all that he was overstating the difficulty of one role over the other. In fact he talks a great deal about the inter-relatedness and interdependence of the roles pretty consistently.

    "Contrary to Mr Chafleff's hypothesis, even a female beginner who has no idea about her role can be taken down a magical path of dance Nirvana with a man who is sensitive to her abilities and a man who truly listens to the music."

    I can't find any reference to that kind of hypothesis - what part are you referring to? In contrast, he writes a great deal about how leaders can encourage a rewarding partnership accommodating followers/subordinates wherever they are in their professional development.

    Also, considering his intended audience - which is business people, particular those at the executive level, I think his use of the terms follower and leader is quite appropriate. He knows his market and is using the terms appropriate to that audience.

  2. Mari...

    When you speak, I need to listen!

    I agree with you that my post here may not be fair to his books. I was not speaking of his books but what he says in public (the video clip). What I understand from his larger message is that he has wonderful things to say about partnerships and valuing roles. Tango would have been a good analogy for this, don't you think?

    You ask, "I can't find any reference to [the followers having the harder job] hypothesis - what part are you referring to?"

    I am referring to what he says to an audience in the video clip I provided. His speaks of a scholar and what Sharna, a talented dancer and teacher. In his talk I feel that he is indeed making a hypothesis that demotivates and demotes the tanguero's role and promotes the tanguera's role. Maybe I misunderstood?

    I wish not be so black-and-white; so I appreciate your words. Thanks.

  3. Interesting discourse. As a newish tanguera, I've just entered the phase where I can tell which leads adjust to my "mistakes," and whom I'd call generous and also intuitive. I can also tell who demands that I follow in a certain way. I like your use of the word "accompany" because it really helps to illustrate that it's a journey we take together, lost luggage and all.

  4. Jane... that is a great line "lost luggage and all." We all bring baggage to the floor, maybe the most magical moment is when we lose it! After I wrote this post, I discovered the root of acompañar is "pan" or bread. What a great word this is for us in tango. Distinct roles: I cut the wheat and take it to the mill. She makes bread, but WE "acompañarnos" -- break bread together. This is a place where roles meet and wonderful moments happen.


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