Sunday, July 6, 2014

What Argentine Tango Taught Me About Management

Argentine Tango Ballroom Dance
Argentine Tango

Three years ago, I started dancing Argentine tango pretty intensely. I would take classes at least once a week with the MIT Argentine Tango Club, and regularly go to "practicas" -- informal practice sessions -- and "milongas" -- formal social dances.

In tango, there is a leader and a follower. The leader is responsible for setting the pace and direction of the dance, asking for specific steps or sequences, and using the space safely (no collisions). The follower listens closely to the leader's cues and performs the steps in her own style.

I've noticed many similarities between partner dancing and the manager-employee relationship. Tango confirmed what I suspected to be true about management:

1. The best leaders know how to follow.

Historically, Argentine men would train to dance as a follower for a long time before trying to lead. It's much easier to learn how moves are supposed to feel when you've done them yourself. Leaders who know how to follow understand how a follower likes to be treated, and they tend to have a less controlling embrace. Sounds like good management to me!

2. Leaders need to stay in the moment, yet keep their eyes on the future.

Tango leaders must be aware of their surroundings. Part of tango etiquette is to use space when it opens up so that you don't create a traffic jam.

Leaders are responsible for ensuring the safety of their partners and other dancers. Sometimes legs go flying, and a jab with a high heel is no fun. Part of preventing collisions is being aware of dangers posed by less conscientious pairs whizzing around the dance floor. 

This is a lot to keep track of, but the best leaders maintain this spacial awareness without sacrificing their presence in the moment. So, too, do good managers support their team's current activities while forecasting possible threats and maintaining a clear vision for the future.

3. Success happens when both parties listen to each other.

Partner dance is a two-way street. The leader may call the shots, but they have no authority if the follower isn't paying attention. Likewise, an oblivious leader may lead moves too advanced or too quick for the follower to keep up. In both cases, the dance is a mess.

An ideal tango involves an interchange of ideas and signals between both partners. It's even better when both people also listen to the music, integrating musicality so they stay in sync. 

In business, the best teams have a give and take between management and employees. The team stays focused on achieving their common goals.

4. Good leaders challenge their followers.

Tango should be a thrilling adventure. But with a predictable leader, it's a bore. To keep his partner engaged, a leader can't get stuck in a rut, repeating the same sequence of moves. He has to spice it up, test his follower's boundaries, see what she's capable of. 

Employees love managers who push their comfort zone and help them grow. Boredom kills.

5. The leader should always take responsibility for mistakes.

There's a saying in tango: "it's always the leader's fault." This applies to obvious errors, like hitting the wall or stepping on someone's foot. But it also applies to subtler mistakes, like miscommunication. If a follower misinterprets a leader's signal, it's because the leader wasn't crystal clear. Even if the follower is sloppy and inexperienced, it's the leader's fault for not giving his partner a lead she can follow.

Leading tango with a poor follower is an exercise in humility. It teaches you to take responsibility for your partner's shortcomings and adjust your leadership so that you both succeed. Just as in business, the leader is to blame for the team's failure.

6. A good leader makes the follower look good.

As the old adage goes: "Good leaders take the blame and share the credit."

My favorite dance partners have the same selfless attitude. They care more about making me look good than showing off what they can do. They take joy in seeing their partner succeed. 

7. You don't have to know what's coming next.

One of the reasons I love dancing tango is that I can stop thinking. I just focus on listening and reacting. I cannot and should not plan ahead. I'm totally in the moment.

If I try to guess what my leader will do next, we get out of sync. So I have to trust my leader and embrace the fact that I don't know what's going to happen next. It's incredibly liberating.

I find this attitude helpful in a business setting, as both a follower and a leader. Employees need to trust their managers and believe in their vision. And sometimes even the manager doesn't know what's going to happen next. But they know how to listen and react, adapting to changes.


Stay tuned for my next post, How Board Games Made Me a Better Entrepreneur.


  1. Great post!

    Do you have any tips on how to learn Tango in Boston without spending a fortune on private lessons and without having to endure the sneers of the "professionals" who dominate the Boston scene?

  2. Absolutely! There are very affordable classes at the Dance Complex on Monday nights, and the MIT Argentine Tango Club is open to the public with very reasonable prices. The MIT practicas are free, so once you have a few lessons under your belt, you can practice there. You may even meet a partner to practice with independently.

    My advice would be to observe the experienced dancers, but dance with other beginners at practicas.

    Also, are you looking to lead or follow?