Dance of Leadership
Excerpts from The Dance of Leadership are published here with the kind permission of Robert Denhardt.

What is it that leaders do that causes others to follow?

In some cases, a potential leader will supply others with a rational explanation as to why moving in a new direction might be in their interest.  But providing an explanation is rarely enough for real leadership to occur.

People can get interested in, even occasionally excited about “explanations,” but they are rarely “energized” in the absence of an emotional commitment.  For this to happen, the leader must touch not only the “head” but also the “heart.” Connecting with the emotions is the work of art, and, it is the art, not the science of leadership that enables leaders to connect with others in a way that stimulates them to act.

The Dance of Leadership explores the art of leadership by examining the perspectives, training, and insights of artists, most particularly in the fields of music and dance. The Dance of Leadership looks at how these people learn their craft, practice their skills, and attain mastery of their art, then adapt these lessons from the arts to the experiences of successful leaders in all fields.

Artistic Leaders:

  • Learn to recognize and read the rhythms of their organizations
  • Work to create a steady rhythm so that individuals can synchronize their personal rhythms with those of others
  • Foster a commonality in rhythm while welcoming variations that provide creativity and excitement
  • Connect with the rhythms that already exist in order to provide transitions to new and different tempos and patterns
  • Develop a sense of timing that takes advantage of the open spaces between the beats

Leading with Rhythm

If you ask any group of executives whether leadership is an art or a science, they will say that leadership is an art.  In our book, The Dance of Leadership (based on a series of interviews with artists and with leaders), we write about how we can learn the art of leadership.  Let’s look at one of the primary artistic elements of leadership, the rhythm of leadership.

Musicians and dancers talk a lot about rhythm. But rhythm is also central to leadership. As choreographer Matthew Neenan told us, “Even in a conference room, there’s a definite dance going on among the people who are speaking and voicing their opinions. There’s a definite rhythm.”

All of us understand rhythm, at least at a subconscious level. But a more conscious awareness of rhythm is what allows the best leaders to move themselves and others forward.

Steady Rhythms – A steady rhythm 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 that everyone has to operate in the same rhythm. Nor does it mean that this rhythm should be mechanical-devoid of breath, spirit and energy.

One important leadership skill is the capacity to identify different rhythms, become adept in different rhythmic structures, and translate across rhythmic boundaries.  In our interview with Bill Post of Pinnacle West, he remarked, “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.”

Changing Rhythms – Despite the importance of a regular beat, a leader might want to occasionally vary the rhythm of an organization in order to stimulate creativity or new thinking.  For example, retreats and conferences are deliberate attempts to break the normal rhythm, allowing for people to think more broadly and creatively.

Dancers and leaders also vary the rhythmic pattern of a group or event in order to add interest and excitement. However, there is a risk involved in varying the rhythm.  As internationally-known choreographer David Parsons told us: “When variations don’t work, they are very, very painful. When they do work, they keep you excited.”  The same is true of leadership.  Real leadership energizes groups and organizations.

Recognizing Rhythms – We asked artists how they “pick up” on the rhythms of different groups. The answer was simple: you have to listen. Listening is not just hearing, but involves all the senses as well as intuition. For dancers, a significant part of picking up the rhythm comes from watching the way people move. But for leaders it’s a matter of gathering all kinds of information and using that information in the best way possible.

The notion of being “in touch” with those in the organization, with understanding their rhythmic capabilities and limitations, was mentioned by a number of the leaders we talked with. George Fisher, former CEO of Kodak said, “You want to increase the pace, but organizations are really fragile and unless you understand the pace and rhythm of an organization you would 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. Fisher continued, “Most good leaders can sense the energy in the organization and the rhythm-if they are in touch with the organization. There are leaders who are not in touch and work hierarchically-‘my rhythm or else.’ Mostly, they don’t last long.”

Rhythm and Timing – Managers and leaders would all subscribe to the notion that “timing is everything,” typically meaning that choosing the correct time to act is critical to the success of a project. 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.

Timing is a deeply personal matter.  Choreographer Alcine Wiltz spoke 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. There are many different ways to go but it’s all about finding the best for what you are trying to accomplish in terms of emotion.”

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.

Rhythm and Change – Rhythm can be steady but it also provides for the realization of emergent patterns. The beats provide the obvious structure and constitute moments of stability, but, between each accent, there is an open space begging to be filled. There is a rhythm in the tension between stability and change that is the essence of life and leadership. Every moment of stability can be followed by a million possibilities.

The rhythms of group and organizations are marked by this tension between realities and possibilities. It is the daunting but often exhilarating task of the leader to move between these spaces, because it’s there that the leader gathers and arranges the social energy that moves the group forward. Choreographer Isadora Duncan put it this way: “All movement on earth is governed by attraction and repulsion, resistance and yielding; it is that which makes the rhythm of dance.” It also makes the rhythm of social change.

Leading with Rhythm – Rhythm is part of our basic make-up, the way we move and act. Too often we let the rhythms of human interaction pass unnoticed, but a conscious recognition of rhythm provides an important basis for leadership. Leaders must know and be able to “play” with the rhythms of their organizations. This allows the group to join the flow of events with a smooth and even tempo, with rhythmic ease and efficiency, and with coordination of thought and action. When this happens, the group has been energized. The group has experienced real leadership.

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Dance of Leadership

Bob and Janet Denhardt teach leadership and organizational change in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University. Portions of this article were adapted from their book, The Dance of LeadershipThe Art of Leading in Business, Government, and Society, and from workshops based on the book. For details visit

About the book

The Dance of Leadership shows how successful leaders can master the artistic aspects of their work. It guides readers to the ways that the leadership can be practiced and learned. The Dance of Leadership explores the art of leadership by examining the perspectives, training, and insights of artists, most particularly in the fields of music and dance. The authors look at how these people learn their craft, practice their skills, and attain mastery of their art. Then they adapt these lessons from the arts to the experiences of successful leaders in all fields. This book incorporates in-depth interviews with some of the world’s premier artists and writers, as well as dozens of leader business, government, the military, and sports. The result is a book that celebrates the art of leadership – but an art that can learned, developed, and practiced.