Rethinking ‘Human Resources’

You may remember (though you are probably too young) that Human Resource departments used to be called ‘Personnel’ departments, and their job was pretty much restricted to finding, training and retaining (and sometimes letting go) personnel – or ‘people’ as we tend to call them these days.  When the term Human Resources was first used in the corporate context, sometime around the 1950s in the United States, it was part of a deliberate rebranding exercise, intended to flag up the strategic importance of the role and the centrality of the ‘human resource’. People were no longer seen as ‘personnel’ – the individuals who happened to carry out a particular duty for the corporation at a particular moment – they were a core and precious resource, to be nurtured and cared for.

But it is a shame that the well-meaning re-branders chose that particular term. The problem with the word ‘resource’ is – well, it’s obvious what the problem is. It makes it sound as if people are a resource, just like copper is a resource – or cotton, or water or any other essential raw material – whereas people are the essential resource: organisations can hope to survive the absence or the scarcity of any other resource provided that they have the people in place with the wit and energy to carry out the necessary transformation to cope with the new conditions.

The key competence is adaptability

In a changing world, the key competence is adaptability. The most perfect processes will become outmoded or irrelevant; only people are capable of making the necessary transition from what works now to what will work in the new environment. And to do this, people need to be engaged, committed, empowered and enabled. They need to be alert to changes in the outside world and certain that their hunches and feelings about that outside world will be listened to and taken seriously. And the organisation needs to structure itself in such a way that it taps into the ideas and energies of all these people, rather than relying on the wisdom (or otherwise) of the few.

The authors of this article have recently published a book called My Steam Engine is Broken: Taking the Organisation from the Industrial Era to the Age of Ideas. In the book we argue (as you have probably guessed from the title) that the mindset of many organisations is still stuck somewhere around the time of the Second Industrial Revolution in the US in the early 20th century – the era in which many of today’s global giants were either born or began to emerge as mighty industrial concerns: corporations such as the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, General Electric, Proctor & Gamble, Coca-Cola and many others. You can’t necessarily blame people for thinking: if it worked for those guys, why would it not work for us? But the fact is that the industrial mindset really isn’t working in the knowledge economy. The obsession with control, measurement and so-called efficiency continues to create a stressed and unhappy working environment in which creativity is stifled and engagement is destroyed. Our steam engines really are broken, and it is time to stop patching them up and to transform them.

Developing a Performance Culture

Dr Mark Powell, one of the co-authors of this article, is an unusual beast: a dancing management consultant. Mark has worked at partner level at several consultancies, including Accenture, KPMG and A.T. Kearney. He is also a world championship-winning Latin ballroom dancer, winning the WDC Open World Over-35 Latin Championship for two years running while he was a partner at KPMG.

In the course of his dance career, which began when he was studying Economics at Cambridge University, Mark came to realise that the techniques and mindsets that he used as a dancer to develop winning performances were very different from those that he tended to deploy in the world of business, but that those techniques and mindsets were entirely applicable to the workplace, and were potentially transformative.

Performing artists develop a set of approaches and behaviours that allow them to master their own craft and to work with their fellow artists to develop a true ‘ensemble’ or ‘partnership’ mentality, encouraging and helping each other to deliver brilliant individual performances that come together to create an outstanding final performance. The absence of these mindsets from most people’s working lives accounts for much of the growing sense of ‘disengagement’ that is blighting modern business.

If you have ever taken part in any kind of creative endeavour – if you have sung in a choir, played in a band or orchestra, performed in a play or musical, or done a stand-up routine, for example – then you may understand what we are driving at. When you ‘put on a show’ of any kind, you are fully engaged; your energy goes straight into your performance; there is no ‘organisational stuff’ that gets between your personal energy and the energy of your performance.

If businesses could tap into even a fraction of the energy, focus and mutually supportive mindset of performing artists, problems of disengagement in the workplace would disappear.

If companies had the same single-minded dedication to delivering a winning ‘performance’ that leaves their audiences calling out for more, their financial performance would be transformed.

This article sets out five core aspects of the mindsets and techniques adopted by top performing artists. These take the form of 5 questions. They are not the kinds of question that we usually ask ourselves when we approach our work, but they have the potential to transform our workplaces.

 5 lessons from the performing arts

  1. What play are we in and what is our role?

This sounds obvious, but it is fundamental. Every top performer starts out with this question. We have phrased it in terms of the theatre, but it applies to every performance art and it affects everything that the performers do. Classical musicians approach playing Handel differently to the way they approach Mahler. Jazz musicians approach Cool Jazz differently from the way they approach Bebop. Performing tragedy is different from performing farce. Great actors change everything about themselves – in subtle ways – when they inhabit a role. Think about Tom Hanks performing as Forrest Gump, and then as Commander Jim Lovell in Apollo 13 – everything about him is different.

The most successful companies know exactly what play they are in. Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, knew from the outset that the play he was in wasn’t called ‘Selling nice coffee’; his play was called ‘Creating a third place for people between work and home.’

Steve Jobs turned Apple from a struggling computer manufacturer into the world’s most valuable company when he helped the company understand that the play they were in wasn’t called ‘Making great computers’ but ‘Helping people think different’.

Understanding what exactly is our individual role in the performance is also key, as is the need to adapt our role in the course of the overall performance. Sometimes we have centre stage; sometimes our job is to feed another performer their line and give them centre stage. When a company (pun intended) knows exactly what show it is in and when everyone knows what their role is in relation to their fellow performers at any given time, that company is on the road to success.

  1. Where is our theatre of action?

Several kinds of operation are called a ‘theatre’: the place where the crucial action happens. The stage, the operating theatre, the theatre of war, for example. In all of these theatres, there is a clear recognition that the most important people are those closest to the action: the actors, technicians and stage-hands; the surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses; the soldiers, gunners and tank drivers. Everyone else, no matter how ‘senior’ they may be, is essentially in a supporting role to the people in the theatre. The managing director of the Royal Shakespeare Company has a very important role, which is all about enabling the people in the theatre to put on great performances.

This is a useful frame of mind for businesses to adopt: Where is our theatre of action? Where is the beating heart of what we do? Where is the vital interface between us and our customers – where do we get to meet the audience/patient/enemy/consumer?

The key to finding the right answer is to focus on the essential outcome, the bit that really matters. A well-disciplined and perfectly supplied army that cannot win battles is not a good army. A brilliantly-run theatre group that cannot put on an audience-pleasing show is not a successful theatre group. A piece of software that is not user-friendly is not a successful piece of software. A shop that is not a pleasure to spend money in is not a successful shop.

Once we have decided where the beating heart of our operation is, it becomes clear who is vital to a successful outcome and who, no matter how senior, is essentially in a supporting role. Amongst those who are vital to a successful outcome, what matters most is their esprit de corps. When the people at the interface are inhabiting their roles and delivering great performances, good things happen.

  1. Have we built a trusting, connected, partnership or ensemble?

This is at the very heart of performance. Top performers focus on their fellow players and ‘connect’, responding in the moment to a subtle reading of their fellow artists’ intentions. This is very obvious in dance, where we talk about the quality of two partners’ ‘connection’.

This kind of connection is sometimes described as ‘looking and seeing’. The theatre voice coach, Patsy Rodenburg, calls it ‘being in ‘The Second Circle’, as she sets out in this video. Looking and seeing demands effort, but it leads to highly functional relationships – and great performances.

A good connection also creates complete trust – at least in the context of the performance. In business, we tend to throw a group of people together and declare that they are now ‘a team’.  Building a real ensemble takes time, but if a group of people accept a challenge and are allowed to work their way to their own solution under the guidance of a ‘director’ – someone who is in charge but not in control – they will quite quickly begin to function like a real ensemble. Many managers still approach work in ‘command and control’ mode; we argued in an earlier article that much business thinking is still unthinkingly stuck in an ‘industrial’ mode. If leaders approached their work like a conductor approaches a choir, or in the way that a theatre director works with an ensemble, we would find it easier to forge ‘the connection’ and to build real ensembles of people, working together energetically and creatively to put on the best show they can.

  1. Are we rehearsing creatively?

Rehearsal is not the same as practice.

Practice is about running over something many times – one small element of a dance routine; a difficult musical phrase; the lines in a play – until it is committed to memory and can be performed without thinking. Our bodies take over and deliver the physical actions, which leaves our minds free to decide, in a live performance, exactly how we want to deliver that action or phrase; its weight, its timing; its accent. To discover the most impactful way of delivering that action or phrase in live performance, performers stop practising and start rehearsing.

In business, we practice many different routines until they are near-perfect, but we tend not to rehearse in any meaningful sense – which is why we complain about the lack of everyday innovation and creativity in our workplaces. Rehearsal is a process of collaborative co-creation. Everything is allowed; nothing is prohibited. One player offers something to the ensemble and it is taken up and played with, not criticized. Performers adopt a mindset of, ‘Yes, and…’ They accept what is offered, add something of their own, and offer it back, until a point is reached where everyone is happy, or it is accepted that this is a blind alley. Rehearsal accepts that all ideas are ‘half-baked’ when they are first proposed and that the job of rehearsal is to try to fully bake the ideas. In business, we tend to be resistant to ‘playing around’ with ideas. There is no spirit of ‘yes, and…’ Ideas that are not yet fully baked tend to be shot down in flames and dismissed.

The possibility of real rehearsal also presupposes the existence of a genuine ensemble: the group of people who are involved in rehearsal must leave their egos and their social or professional status outside the door of the rehearsal room. In business, ego and status normally get in the way. We hardly ever ‘rehearse’ – small groups of people decide what will happen and try to ‘implement’ this. It tends not to work very well.

  1. Do we know what inputs are creating our outputs?

All performers know that what the audience sees and hears is the result of precise, much-practised behaviours – inputs – that often have no direct or obvious connection to the perceived result: the output. Successful dance moves begin from the feet, or the spine, or a tilt of the head. The right musical tone is created by a precise combination of breath, lip and tongue, or of pressure and vibrato of finger and bow stroke. Performers focus on the inputs that they know will produce the right outputs.

In business, we tend to focus almost entirely on the ‘results’ – the things that can be easily measured – and we lose focus on the inputs that are producing those results. It is perfectly possible for any project or organization to have a near-perfect set of results for a succession of quarters, but still to have unresolved problems at its heart that doom it to eventual failure. The quality of the inputs matters far more to our long-term business health than the more obvious outputs.

Another way of seeing this is to recognise that intangibles are more important in business than the simplistic things that can be easily measured. The outputs that we can put numbers on all matter, but they are the result of other, far more important inputs, nearly all of which are effectively intangible: individual flair and flawless ensemble work; levels of trust, energy and commitment; creativity, inspiration and esprit de corps.

To be able to assess these intangibles, the modern leader needs to have his or her finger on the pulse of the organization; to assess its physical and emotional health. Today’s successful leader is (or should be) less like an engineer, monitoring various dials, throwing levers and adjusting valves, and more like a director, choreographer or conductor, able to spot the false note that renders a performance unbelievable; a subtle change that could transform the mundane into the marvellous; a new pace and rhythm for the overall performance that could deliver a wonderful experience to the audience.

Great directors do not carry clipboards and tick off the various measures that have been achieved. They know what play they are in and the make sure that everyone understands the roles they are playing. They know where their vital theatre of action is: the place where their performance is judged by the audience. They create working environments that engender trust and connection. They work at the inputs and forge true ensembles that are rehearsing creatively. They nudge the team in the desired direction with confidence that the final result (over which they can have no real control) will be a winning performance.

Read 5 more lessons from the performing arts in Developing a Performance Culture Part II

Read more about Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success, a business novel based on Mark’s ground-breaking arts-based leadership development programmes.


This blog first appeared on CultureUniversity.com

An account of a four-year arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and run by Mark was given in a series of previous articles, beginning with ‘Changing Business Culture via the Performing Arts’.

The authors acknowledge the contribution of Piers Ibbotson, ex-Royal Shakespeare Company member and now Teaching Fellow at the UK’s Warwick University Business School. Piers is the author of The Illusion of Leadership and a contributor to the authors’ book Perform To Win (see below) on which this article is based.

Embodied Leadership: Conducting Business

Jazz Leadership

This post is the last in a series of five articles describing a major arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and run over a four-year period by Dr Mark Powell, one of the authors of this article. Previous posts have looked at the way in which delegates to the programme worked with dancers, actors and jazz musicians.

Read the previous article: ‘Jazz Leadership’

This final post explores the most ‘hands-on’– and for many delegates the most emotional – element of the programme: the experience of conducting a small chamber choir.

The conducting sessions at Oxford were facilitated by Peter Hanke, a pioneer in this field. Peter is an established choral and orchestral conductor and an associate of the Centre for Art and Leadership at Copenhagen Business School. Peter recounts how, many years ago, he was asked to join a group of business people and give them the opportunity to conduct a small choir. Peter, who gives masterclasses in conducting to professional musicians, was struck by the fact that some of these business leaders, with little or no musical background, were nevertheless able to conduct the musicians quite successfully – sometimes more successfully, to Peter’s surprise, than some trained musicians.

Non-verbal leadership

Peter argues that this is because conducting is not a metaphor for leadership, it is leadership – with the significant difference that it is entirely non-verbal leadership: in performance, the conductor can communicate only through body language and gesture. Successful business leaders have grasped some of the essentials of this vital aspect of communication (quite possibly unconsciously) and are able to use their skills to good musical effect.

A conductor should guide rather than command. Riccardo Muti

In the Oxford programme, delegates went through simple warm-up exercises – some basic ‘loosening up’ of arm movements and gesture – and then took turns in conducting the small professional choral group.

The mood is relaxed and non-judgmental; the facilitator reminds everyone that they are among friends and that the aim is to explore and experience, not to compete. The choir has been briefed to respond precisely to what the delegates do. If the conductor sets a laboured pace, the choir will doggedly stick with this until the facilitator rescues everyone. If the conductor is agitated, the choir will be agitated; as the conductor relaxes, the music calms. Intriguingly, it quickly becomes obvious that far more subtle things are also being conveyed: nervousness, excitement, ebullience, reticence and delight all produce their quite distinctive timbres. If the conductor is too controlling, the music sounds forced; if they get over-excited, the music falls apart and the choir grind to a halt, with much good-natured laughter.

Making music together

As the exercise progresses, the facilitator gives practical advice, all of which is remarkably effective in improving the conductors’ performance. Delegates might be advised to lean backwards, for example, to convey expansiveness, rather than leaning forwards, which suggests scrutiny. Delegates are often advised to limit their arm movements – more contained gestures are more effective than dramatic arm-waving. Where the arms are held in relation to the body has a surprisingly distinct effect on the sound the choir produces.

The sessions typically provoke a great deal of emotion. It is a rare privilege to be an active part of making beautiful music and the sound the choir produces, even in the hands of untrained conductors, is breath-taking, especially at such close quarters – delegates who are not conducting sit in amongst the choir.

The sessions provide rich material for subsequent reflection about leadership. Because space is limited, we have set out below some of the typical key discussion issues, in bullet point form.

  • Complex information is being transmitted from the conductor to the musicians, wordlessly. We tend to call this ‘emotional’ information, but the exercises demonstrate just how much information can be conveyed – both how subtle this can be, and how it shapes the whole performance.
  • The choir have skills that the leader lacks, yet the conductor is able to lead them successfully; the leader produces results through the skills and efforts of others.
  • The relationship is not one of control – the choir must be inspired, and it is impossible to command someone to be inspired.
  • The choir is capable of keeping time and performing the piece well without a conductor, it is what the conductor/leader brings to the music that is of interest.
  • The choir looks to the conductor/leader for direction; it wants to understand what the conductor wants, but it doesn’t want or need to be told what to do.
  • The music produced by the choir sounds different depending on the actions of the conductor because the choir are physically affected by what they see: their diaphragms, lungs, throats and vocal chords behave differently. When the singers like the effect that a conductor is producing, they tend to point to parts of their chests or throats: ‘That feels good here,’ they say. It is a remarkable demonstration of the real effects of what we call ‘embodied leadership’.
  • The success of the performance is judged by the beauty of the end result; good leadership produces more beautiful results.

Creating ‘beautiful’ performances and cultures

Seeing leaders as ‘people who conduct business’ is a highly useful tool for exploring business culture. Leaders and their organisations do perform together, but this performance is typically analysed only in terms of the usual metrics. We tend to forget the extent to which the relationship between leaders and their organizations is embodied – that any number of words are likely to be less effective than the perceived behaviour of leaders – and that there really is beauty in business performance, just as there is such a thing as a healthy (or ‘beautiful’) business culture.

The authors of these articles argue that there is much to be gained by thinking of business as a performance, undertaken by genuine ensembles focussed on the effectiveness of the performance as a whole, where leadership is embodied, shared and allowed and where the outcome is best judged by how beautiful, or ‘affective’, the performance is. Businesses have audiences – ‘consumers’ – and if we deliver great performances, they will come back for more.

A semi-fictionalised account of Dr Powell’s ground-breaking arts-based leadership programme is given in the business novel Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success, by Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

A full analysis of the dance aspect of the programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics under the title, ‘Dancing Lessons for Leaders: Experiencing the Artistic Mindset’.

This article first appeared on CultureUniversity.com under the title ‘Conducting Business: Embodied Leadership and ‘Beautiful’ Cultures’

Turning Businesses Into Ensembles

By Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

This post is the second in a series of five articles describing a major arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, designed and run over a four-year period by Dr Mark Powell.

Read the previous article: ‘Teaching Leaders To Dance’

In the program, which was conducted on behalf of a major oil and gas exploration company, senior project managers worked closely with a wide variety of artists: jazz musicians, actors, painters, storytellers, dancers, conductors and others. The aim was to create a new culture of ‘open mindedness’ in the project managers, encouraging them to interact effectively with the other stakeholders involved in major projects, and enhancing their ability to ‘improvise’ – to react quickly and effectively to changing circumstances.

This article focusses on the use of drama-based concepts and techniques. The drama-based sessions were facilitated by Piers Ibbotson, an ex-Royal Shakespeare Company actor and associate director, now principal teaching fellow at the UK’s Warwick Business School.

The sessions explored a very wide range of drama-based concepts and experiences. This article has space to focus only on two areas: the creation of ensembles and the techniques of creative rehearsal. Delegates took part in a number of exercises to illustrate these concepts, some of which are used in theatre to help bring new groups of actors together when building new ensembles.

The focus throughout the program was on having delegates work very closely with artists, hoping to create a series of ‘ah-ha!’ moments where delegates would grasp at a physical, ‘gut’ level what the artists were experiencing and what they were trying to achieve.

Building real ensembles

Building real ensembles takes time; you cannot throw a group of people together and expect them instantly to become an ensemble. Theatre groups, however, build hugely effective ensembles remarkably quickly – there is typically a matter of weeks of rehearsal time before a new show is performed for the first time in front of an audience. The key is the actors’ mindset of trust and openness: they set out with the explicit goal of coming together as ensemble to put on a great collective performance.

In ensembles, everyone’s input is equally important – a brilliant performance by the leading actors is only possible where they are supported by brilliant performances from the rest of the cast. True ensembles are also free of status – everyone is equal before the task.

Delegates experienced a series of exercises designed to explore the ideas of status and trust in groups and the fact that it is possible to trust someone completely in the ensemble environment without it being necessary to feel that you ‘trust them with your life’.

Rehearsing creatively

The process of creative rehearsal is a key part of creating an ensemble. In theatre, a director will be ‘in charge’ of rehearsals but not ‘in control.’ Being ‘in control’ stifles creativity; directors offer ‘creative constraints’ and suggest new avenues to explore. New ideas are accepted and worked with by the ensemble before they are dropped or accepted by common consent. This is contrasted with the practice, common in business, of examining every new idea for its faults and rejecting anything that does not seem to be perfect. There is an acceptance in theatre that every idea when first put forward is ‘half baked’ and that it is the function of rehearsal to try to bake the idea fully.

Delegates took part in an improvisation exercise based on the concept of ‘yes, and…’ – taking an idea put out by one member of the ensemble, embellishing it and offering the new version back, trying not to ‘block’ the developing idea by closing down the possibility of further embellishment. Other exercises explored ‘creative leadership’ by carrying out some simple task as a group – firstly using planning and implementation and then as part of a dramatic scenario, creating the possibility for improvisation and creative leadership. When we plan and implement, any change requires that we stop, re-plan and then try to re-implement; when we work creatively together – like actors or musicians performing – we respond instantly to the changing scenario.

Another key aspect of theatrical rehearsal is that the whole cast must come together for a full rehearsal before the first performance – leading actors, supporting roles and extras. Delegates on the programme considered the extent to which business properly ‘rehearses’ scenarios creatively and whether all of the relevant players are ever brought together, or only the ‘leading actors’.

A key aspect of arts-based leadership development is that individual delegates respond differently to different sessions: a particular aspect will resonate strongly with one delegate; for another it will be something else. However, the typical take-outs from drama-based sessions on ensemble work and rehearsal were these:

Lessons from the performing arts

  • Teams do not automatically become ensembles; building an ensemble takes time and effort.
  • True ensembles are created when groups have a common challenge and work together to find the best solution.
  • Someone needs to be in charge, but not in control; the group must find their own solutions, with guidance.
  • Status must be taken out of the equation; everyone in the ensemble is equal before the task.
  • Ensembles naturally develop very high levels of trust; it is not possible to interact successfully with any element of distrust.
  • No member of the ensemble can be brilliant at anyone else’s expense, everyone has an interest in helping everyone else to be brilliant.
  • Rehearsal accepts all ideas as half-baked and seeks to fully bake them.
  • Ideas are accepted and played with in the spirit of ‘yes, and…’; no ideas are shot down in flames and the ideas that work are taken up and embellished.
  • When we work creatively together in this way, we think as we work; there is no need to stop and re-plan in the face of change.
  • For a full rehearsal, everyone involved must be in the room, including the extras.

Over the course of the four-year programme, some 200 project managers attended the week-long residential course at Oxford and a real shift towards a more ‘open-minded’ culture was reported by the company.

If businesses behaved more like artistic ensembles, business culture could be transformed.

Read the following article in this series: ‘Jazz Leadership’

A semi-fictionalised account of Dr Powell’s ground-breaking arts-based leadership programme is given in the business novel Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success, by Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

A full analysis of the dance aspect of the programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics under the title, ‘Dancing Lessons for Leaders: Experiencing the Artistic Mindset’

Teaching Leaders To Dance

By Dr Mark Powell and Jonathan Gifford

In an earlier post, we gave a very brief account of a major arts-based leadership development programme at Oxford University’s School of Business, designed to create new behaviors in a group of senior project managers in the oil and gas exploration industry. The aim was to create a new culture of ‘open-mindedness’: the ability to form more effective working relationships with the other stakeholders involved in major capital projects and an increased ability to ‘improvise’ – to react quickly and effectively to rapidly changing situations.

Dr Mark Powell designed and ran the four-year programme, giving successive delegates an intense, week-long exposure to artists of all kinds. Mark is himself a championship-winning Latin ballroom dancer, having won the over-35 World Championship for two years running while working as a partner at KPMG. He argues that people’s core behaviours are not easily changed by new information – by ‘being told stuff’ – and that we need a gut experience, a real ‘ah-ha!’ moment of understanding, to be able to internalise something sufficiently to create enduring new behaviour patterns. Working at close quarters with top-flight performing artists has the potential to create such moments of insight. This article describes how delegates to the Oxford progamme worked with world-class competitive Latin ballroom dancers.

The connection

Sessions begin with a short routine by the dancers. Dance that looks wonderful on stage or screen has even greater impact at close quarters; the speed, agility and precision of top dancers takes the breath away. The subsequent series of exercises and demonstrations set out to give delegates some understanding of the key mindsets and approaches that dancers use to create winning performances.

In competitive dance, there is much focus on the quality of ‘the connection’ between two dancers. It comes out of their intense awareness of each other’s behavior in the course of the performance and the subtlety of their interaction.

As an exercise, delegates are asked to pair up and put their hands forward, palms facing outwards. Each delegate puts their hands against the other’s, increasing the weight transferred until it is uncomfortable for the other partner. As they ease off, there comes a point at which each partner can no longer feel the other’s weight; they have lost ‘the connection’ in a physical sense. Moving around in simple ways while trying to maintain the correct weight of connection is difficult, but tends to lead to a number of ‘ah-ha!’ moments from delegates.

Dancers are not in physical contact throughout the whole of any routine; the connection must be maintained visually. Dancers talk about ‘looking and seeing’: keeping constantly and precisely aware of what their partner is experiencing and signalling.

Discussion turns to levels of genuine interaction in the workplace. Delegates experiment with maintaining higher levels of eye contact than usual while chatting to their colleagues. This is usually slightly uncomfortable, prompting further discussion of the typical level of ‘connection’ between colleagues at work.

Using ‘the connection’ for complex improvisation

The dancers perform a short, unrehearsed routine. Dancers with good connection are able to improvise astonishingly complex routines without any prior discussion. They explain to the delegates the convention in ballroom dancing that the man ‘leads’ and so is able to initiate moves that are instantly grasped and executed by their partner, but also stress that the lead is often ‘shared’ and that the woman dancer may initiate a move. This shared leadership between expert partners enables them to improvise high-quality routines that would require hours of rehearsal by less well-connected dancers.

The dancers also show how leadership must be ‘allowed’. The physical connection that was demonstrated in the weight-sharing exercise can become ‘push-pull’. They perform a short routine in which the man ignores his partner’s responses and ‘pushes’ her around the dance floor. The effect is immediately obvious and is ugly to watch; the dance has been ruined aesthetically.

Absolute trust

The key issue of trust is dramatically demonstrated when the dancers perform a few lifts and catches. The dancers explain that the trust is actually absolute, not relative: ‘a high degree of trust’ is not good enough – a moment’s doubt and hesitation can lead, paradoxically, to accidents. Discussion turns to typical levels of trust between colleagues at work and to the advantages that higher levels of trust would bring.

 The art in what we do

Finally, the dancers explore the issue of ‘artistry’ – the aesthetic elements that raise a competitive routine above mere technical excellence. Because competition is so fierce, last year’s winning artistry will not be enough to win this year’s championship: dancers are constantly looking for the new piece of magic that will lift their routine out of the ordinary – even when the ‘ordinary’ is technically astounding. Delegates consider whether there is scope for artistry in their own performances at work.

True ensemble behavior

The common thread that runs through all performances that involve more than one person is ensemble behaviour. Groups of performing artists put on a winning performance together, or they fail. Only by helping you to perform brilliantly can I hope to be part of a winning performance.

The focus on ‘connection’ in these dance sessions helped to engender, at an emotional, gut level, a new awareness of the centrality of partnership and team work, and the fact that this depends on ‘being there for others’: reacting positively and supportively to whatever partners are experiencing and signalling in the attempt to deliver a winning performance together. Issues of ‘shared and allowed’ leadership were also key, as was the consequent ability to improvise brilliantly in the face of rapidly changing circumstances.

Embracing a ‘dance’ culture

  • Quality of connection is key: great performers react to each other in the moment, subtly and precisely
  • Great connection also enables brilliant improvisation
  • Leadership is shared, allowed and serves the overall performance
  • Trust is absolute and taken for granted; lack of trust is fatal
  • Winning performances are aesthetically wonderful as well as being technically perfect

Read the next article in this series: ‘Turning Businesses Into Ensembles’


A semi-fictionalised account of Dr Powell’s ground-breaking arts-based leadership programme is given in the business novel Perform To Win: Unlocking the secrets of the arts for personal and business success

A full analysis of the dance aspect of the programme was published in the Journal of Organizational Aesthetics under the title, ‘Dancing Lessons for Leaders: Experiencing the Artistic Mindset’

This article first appeared on CultureUniversity.com