Argentinian Tango, Buenos Aires, 2009 (Source: Wikimedia Commons
Ideas for Leaders #159

Smart Moves – the Tango and Modern Leadership

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Key Concept

The tango is presented as a metaphor for leadership in the modern world. Although it has adapted to changing social structures and attitudes to gender, it remains a passionate and emotionally powerful pastime. It also provides leaders with a novel approach to assessing their own management capabilities.

Idea Summary

The traditional, hierarchical structure of organizations is diminishing as we work our way through the 21st century. Business is fast-paced and unpredictable; we cannot rely on things the way we used to, whether it is our customers, our suppliers, or even our staff. Modern companies are constantly reminded to be flexible, to adapt, and to grow in an organic manner that responds quickly to change, creating new products and services that are relevant to their markets. Leaders at the helm of these companies have to be particularly robust in the face of that change, ready to think on their feet and innovate where necessary to stay ahead of the competition.

Recent research suggests that one of the most dynamic of dance forms, the tango, can provide interesting parallels with leadership, helping us to develop a new form of leader identity.

Unlike ballroom dancing, where partners learn a structured sequence of steps and perfect them over time, the tango does away with structure – as modern leadership is increasingly doing – and relies on improvisation, and communication. Take this description of the dance and you can see the parallels: “…tango isn’t about perfection. It’s about communication and emotion and shared experience, a supportive environment where ‘mistakes’ are accepted as a natural consequence of exploration.” This could just as easily be describing the nature of modern leadership.

Traditionally viewed as a ‘macho’ dance, with the male lead very much in control, the tango has itself adapted to our times and can be closely aligned to modern concepts of leadership. Yes, it still takes two to tango and it is still essentially about leading and following, but negotiation on the dance floor plays a bigger part – it is regarded more as a dance of ‘collaboration’. You invite your partner to take the next step, you hope they will follow, and you move forward at an agreed pace.

The similarity with the way we do business is clear. As Professor Margarita Mayo of IE Business School puts it: “The tango does require a clear leader and a clear follower, but the lead role will depend on who is the expert at that particular moment, and that may change with the next step. Indeed, the follower can introduce an element of creativity by adding some steps.” It is the same with organizations – you may regard yourself as leader, but sometimes you need to acknowledge the expertise of those who follow you and be prepared to ‘follow’ them, by embracing that expertise and going where they lead you.

In the same way as the modern male tango dancer invites his partner to be led, and has her agreement to be led, so the modern leader invites their team to share their vision, and seeks agreement to build on that vision. Without agreement and balance there is no tango…without agreement and balance, your leadership will falter.

Business Application

Examine your leadership qualities and analyse how others view you as a leader. Are you good at listening, for example? Do you have a tendency to be autocratic, expecting commitment from your team whatever its members’ own views may be? Is there room for you to adapt your leadership identity, brush up your negotiation skills and communicate your plans for the business better? Find effective ways to get your followers motivated, and seek commitment rather than expect it – it is likely to be far more fruitful in the long term. 

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Idea conceived

  • January 2013

Idea posted

  • June 2013

DOI number



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