Guest Column

‘I’ve Got Rhythm:’ The Dance Routine

by Robert B. Denhardt and Janet V. Denhardt

Success in leadership depends on being able to recognize and engage the rhythms of human interaction.

Too often we let these rhythms pass unnoticed like Muzak background music. Yet a more conscious recognition of rhythm provides an important basis for leadership.

Borrowing from the world of art and dance and relying on the words of successful leaders in various fields, we can identify those aspects of rhythm that are essential to effective leadership.

Predictable Order
Steady Rhythm: A steady rhythm in an organization provides grounding and is a sign of a good working order. It lets people know there is something regular and predictable they can count on. However, this doesn’t mean everyone has to dance to the same beat. Nor does it mean this rhythm should be mechanical, devoid of breath, spirit and energy.

“Rhythmic mirroring” is applicable here. Beginning a conversation with questions such as “How was that camping trip last weekend?” not only shows caring and concern, which is essential to effective leadership, but also allows for the rhythms of the parties to get in sync. Conversely, starting a conversation abruptly creates dysrhythmia (conflicting rhythms) and makes a difficult conversation even more so.

Commonality: Variations in rhythm among groups can be a positive thing, but there needs to be some commonality. The differences in rhythm that people bring should not be considered problems but rather opportunities for action. The rhythm of the finance department may be different than that of the human resources department, and that difference may be essential to the overall work of the organization.

Successful leaders develop the capacity to identify different rhythms, to become adept at working within different rhythmic structures and to translate information across rhythmic boundaries. William Post, CEO of Pinnacle West Capital Corp., has said: “All rhythm is good. It’s just being able to identify that and mold the leadership to the rhythm rather than the other way around.”

Stimulating Creativity
Variation in Rhythm: In spite of the importance of a regular beat, a leader might want occasionally to vary the rhythm of an organization to stimulate new thinking. Arrhythmia (an irregularity in the beat) or even dysrhythmia may open doors to new possibilities and creative ways to see familiar problems. Staff retreats and conferences are deliberate attempts to break the normal rhythm, allowing for people to think more broadly and creatively about themselves and the organization.

Organizational leaders, like dancers, vary the rhythmic pattern of a group or event in order to add excitement. Risk is involved in varying the rhythm, but as choreographer David Parsons once told us: “When [variations] don’t work, they are very, very painful. When they do work, they keep you excited.”

Tempo and Pace: Changes in the rhythm of an organization depend first on understanding the existing rhythm. We asked artists and musicians how they pick up on rhythm, and their answer was simple: You have to listen. Listening is not just hearing; it’s a multifaceted task, involving all the senses as well as intuition. For dancers, understanding rhythm comes from watching the way people move. But for leaders it’s a matter of listening and gathering information and using that information in the best way possible.

George Fisher, CEO of Eastman Kodak, said: “You want to increase the pace, but organizations are really fragile. Unless you understand the pace and rhythm of an organization you could be in jeopardy of destroying the organization in a day.” In fact, being able to sense the rhythm of the organization is a prerequisite to effective leadership. “Most good leaders can sense the energy in the organization and the rhythm,” Fisher said. “There are leaders who are not in touch and work hierarchically — ‘my rhythm or else.’ Mostly, they don’t last long.”

Proper Moments
Timing: We have all heard that “timing is everything.” Timing depends on an intuitive sense of rhythm. The leader has to comprehend the rhythm of the group, understand the group’s needs and potential, articulate a direction for the group and trigger group action. That’s not merely a matter of deciding what particular instant is the right moment to move. Rather it’s setting a course that fully captures the power of the available winds.

Alcine Wiltz, chair of the dance department at the University of Maryland, speaks of timing as “trying to find where the currents are and ride them where the momentum is taking you — to the next meeting, to the next relationship. In dance, that’s how we get from one shape to the next.”

In some situations, you may feel that your personal timing is off, similar to the way a comedian might say his or her timing is off. It’s missing the beat, hitting too soon or too late, being out of touch. When that occurs, the best course is to pull back, try to find the rhythm of the group and then see how your own personal rhythm connects.

Carla Perlo, founder of Dance Place in Washington, D.C., told us: “Knowing when to move requires sensing what’s around you, the rhythm. Timing must connect with rhythm. When you change rhythm, you can lose your timing, but if you keep going you’ll get it back. You need lots of practice to get good at it.”

Robert Denhardt is director of the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University in Phoenix, Ariz. E-mail: rdenhardt@danceofleadership. com. Janet Denhardt is a professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State. They adapted this column, in part, from their book The Dance of Leadership: The Art of Leading in Business, Government and Society.