5 Leadership lessons from Argentine tango

Can managers learn anything from the old fashioned tango? Isn’t this musty stuff relegated to dustbins of the previous generation and of little interest to the modern crop of today’s MBAs?
In the spirit of the carnival season this post is on a lighter note. In preparation for my upcoming vacation trip to Buenos Aires I have been exposing myself to the delights of the Argentine tango by way of dance classes. Now, I have never been really into dancing and so I am pleasantly surprised at the charms, depth and the unexpected management lessons (!) one can derive from this enjoyable and occasionally passionate pastime.
NOTE to the un-initiated: Argentine tango is a very different dance from your typical ballroom, Latin or discostyle dancing. It does not have a fixed rhythm or a step flow but instead relies on a “close embrace” connection between partners to execute an individual, free-flowing step structure nevertheless tuned to the played music.
Leaders lead, the followers follow (and don’t you try to change that!) – One of the first things you learn from the Argentine tango is that the dancing couple  has  prescribed roles (leader and follower) which are to be acknowledged, accepted and executed each in their own way. There can only be one leader (one pair of hands on the steering wheel) with his vision and objectives for the dance (organization). The follower’s job is to be fine-tuned to that vision as well as to the directions coming from the leader. There is no bigger disaster than the case of followers attempting to out-guess the leader or impose their own vision in the dance (company). I had such a case of “founderitis” in one of the ventures I was running when the founder had a really hard time to let go and attempted to run the shop from the back seat. This can not be successful and only leads to problems. Trust and mutual respect are the foundation of a well executed dance 🙂
It’s about connecting – The most critical part in executing Argentine tango is to establish a close and firm connection (embrace) between partners right from the start. The partners need to feel connected in an intimate way secure, trusting and working together. The followers may feel well taken care of, but led in a firm way.
You don’t tell, you show the direction – As soon as the movement starts, the tango dance becomes a series of small collaborative step projects. The leader’s job is to navigate the dance floor (market) looking for free space (opportunities) and avoid collisions (competition), while tuning the performance to the music played (economic environment) with an ultimate objective of ensuring a beautiful and satisfying experience (commercial success). To execute well, the leaders and the followers need to be collaborating harmoniously through a series of gentle interactions: the leader extends an invitation and the follower issues an acceptance moving in the way and the direction selected.
Listen to the music – Even the best learnt dancing technique (technology) is useless if it does not fit well with the music played (market requirements). The leader’s job is to ensure that the partners dance to the music played and do not in futile attempt to force the music (the world) to fit what they know and do.
Enjoy yourself! – Why do we dance (live and work)? Beauty, love, romance, graceful moves, scent of roses, fresh-cut grass, slender limbs, taste of honey, that’s the stuff that dance and life is made of. We all spend most of our waking hours at work. Let’s make sure we make it a bit more like the tango 🙂
I have stumbled upon this brief video which helps to illustrate some of my points:
If you would like to see a brief sample of master tango, here is a clip of Gabriel Misse and his partner Alejandra Martinan. It starts off slow, but note the amazing footwork as they progress. Most amazing? It’s ALL improvised on the spot (yes, market conditions can change quickly 🙂
Finally, if, after all of the above 🙂 you are in need of tango instruction, here is a website of my favourite master teachers:

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