The Dance of Leadership: Claiming Your Style

“Leadership is about figuring out who you are and what you’re passionate about.”

Many women struggle to see themselves as leaders. Although they may head a department, a team or a group of students, they don’t consider themselves leaders—because they’re not at the top.

Dr. Robin Denise Johnson had danced since she was a child, but put her dancing shoes away because she didn’t see herself as a dancer. Returning to dancing at age 40, she realized she was a dancer too.

Noticing the same phenomenon happening with leaders around her, Johnson became interested in examining leadership. “I was leading people who didn’t see themselves as leaders,” she said. “They were making a positive difference in the world, but weren’t on top of the hierarchy. They weren’t ‘anointed’ as leaders.”

Recognizing the comparison, she decided that the internal conception of what it meant to be a leader was too narrow. She began to teach and write about leadership, and organized it into five styles, based on famous dancer Gabriel Rolf’s five rhythms of movement.

Johnson is the author of Dance of Leadership and an associate professor of management at California State Polytechnic University, where she teaches leadership, diversity and organizational behavior. She also teaches at the UCLA Leadership Institutes for women, African Americans and multi-cultural communications executives.

At the Northern California Network of the American Council on Education’s Office of Women in Higher Education meeting in San Francisco in May, Johnson helped participants to identify their own leadership styles, match styles to situations, understand the difference in the leader and follower roles and value the strengths of diverse leadership approaches.

Defining leadership

She studied how the research defines leadership:

  •  Position-Power-Authority. This is the command/control/push style, and is based on influence. Leaders have a le-gitimate right to make decisions based on their office. This style is especially effective during a crisis or time crunch. Some schools of leadership advise creating a crisis, in order to be able to demonstrate this type of leadership.
  • Pull. This type involves, engages and seeks common ground. It’s great for psychological buy-in and creativity.
  • Charisma (aka/Referent Power). This style reveres people who have “it,” the “gift of grace from God.” People feel that they have to be born with it. “But you can construct it,” said Johnson. “You can make it happen for you.” Cleopatra demonstrated this type of leadership. The first in her dynasty to learn the languages of the people she led, she spoke 10 languages. Through storytelling, images and symbolism, she learned to connect to the religion of the people without undermining her power as queen. She advanced her agenda through alliances.
  • Relationship. Focusing on the relationship between followers and leaders, women traditionally excel at it.
  • Shared goals. A group and leader must share goals. Johnson has constructed her own definition of leadership and leaders: Leadership is intending to, and making a significant difference towards the achievement of a shared goal. A leader is a person who causes or influences others to make a positive difference toward the achievement of a shared goal.

Does the research say leaders are born or made? Mainstream thought is that leaders are born, and possess inherent traits. From the 1500s to the 1950s, it was thought that leaders alone possessed the magic cocktail of energy, the ability to get energized about something and find people to join them, and intelligence, whether social, creative or emotional.

Recently leadership theorists have decided these skills can be acquired and that people can be “made” into effective leaders, or that leadership can be situational in which people are “called” upon to lead.

Her five rhythms of leadership

1. Flowing. Hallmarks of this style are: Contiguity, taking one step at a time, practicing grounded change, channeling resistance into productive directions and channeling flow instead of blocking it. Examples include Cleopatra, Michael Jordan, Maya Angelou, Mary Magdalene and Dona Fela, the first woman mayor of Puerto Rico, who developed the Head Start program model.

This style is effective in situations where there is continuous-clear-inexorable change, interpersonal conflict and resis-tance that needs to be co-opted, and where co-opting performance is okay. “It’s good when there’s conflict you can co-opt,” said Johnson. “The person resisting has energy that you can redirect into something else.”

The flowing leader’s job is to focus on manageable steps toward the goal so that small wins keep you on track and provide continuous immediate feedback, thereby directing energy into the most productive channels at all times, and to balance the followers’ goals with their skills by using feedback.

2. Staccato. Staccato leadership is characterized by extroverts’ ignited passion: short, sharp percussive and dramatic bursts of energy in many directions; risk taking, making changes and experimenting; setting goals and direction; drawing boundaries; disciplined activity; protecting stakeholders; “push influence” style of asserting, directing and telling; meeting resistance with an equal or stronger counter force.

Examples include Sun Tzu’s General in the Art of War, entrepreneurs Madame CJ Walker and Jack Welch, architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s falling water designs, and news anchor Elizabeth Vargas. Latina women who are often trying to claim power tend to use this style, as do entrepreneurs. It’s matching force with force, said Johnson.

Staccato leadership is a good fit when there is a crisis or emergency situation where structure and/or direction are possible, desired or needed, when there are rules or laws that must be obeyed, in a time-bound situation and where a coerced performance is okay. A staccato leader must control, motivate, direct and protect by any means to minimize casualties.

There are gendered expectations of staccato leaders, said Johnson, noting that men are allowed a wider range of expression than women within the staccato style. Both women and men expect women to soften their approaches when they are using this “command-control” style. “It’s a caution to women,” said Johnson. “If you have a steel fist, put velvet on that glove.”

3. Chaos. Chaos leadership style is energy without direction or form, and there are both introverted and extroverted versions. Leaders have comfort with ambiguity, and are willing to surrender to currents and let order emerge. They’re comfortable with and embody contrasts, contradictions and complexity, including: strength and vulnerability; innocent wisdom vs. wise innocence; and complex authenticity. They’re intuitive and have “box-busting” energy. Examples in-clude Alexander the Great, Bill Clinton, Albert Einstein, Jackson Pollock, Frank Gehry and Margaret Cho.

This leadership works when there is a crisis and changing times, with order but no predictability; in revolutionary times when control is impossible and survival is most important; when there are clashing counter-forces, and where there are outmoded, dysfunctional or inaccurate mental frameworks that must be replaced, such as scientific paradigms, societal stereotypes or institutional inertia.

The leader’s job is to ride the wave, keep the faith, allow order to emerge and encourage followers, by helping them believe that they can and will eventually survive the chaos.

The first two types of leaders can control things, said Johnson, but this one can’t. It’s a type of leadership that’s prevalent in the entertainment industry. Leaders are most effective when they have a sense of humor, and can tell a story to give heart to people.

4. Lyrical. This style is just as it sounds: twirling, swirling, light and airy. It’s elegant on the surface, with strength, balance and hard work below. It’s poised, capable and unflappable. Leaders practice an introverted “pull” style, leading by encouraging, engaging, inquiring and empathizing.

They multi-task and shape-shift, morphing as needed. Agendas are works-in-progress, focused on the process, utilizing improvisation and knowing possibilities exist. Lyrical leaders include Princess Diana, Sargent Shriver, and Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.

Lyrical leadership is effective when: there’s influence without authority, improvisation is necessary; a relational con-nections-network is needed; relational skills and emotional intelligence are required; involvement/commitment and many hands are needed to get things done; and a creative, committed performance is required.

A lyrical leader must: get and keep followers involved, informed and committed to their shared goals; serve as the force necessary to keep people moving toward the goal, sometimes shape shifting; and balance competing or conflicting relationships and interests using honed integrative conflict resolution skills.

5. Stillness. In this style, there is seemingly little or no movement. Like breath, there is the slow taking in and out of energy, originating in the center. Leaders guide by providing information that causes people to take a hard look at shad-ows that may be blocking growth. Leadership hallmarks include the use of silence, transformational listening, introver-sion and being-power. Gandhi, Rosa Parks, the Dalai Lama, and non-violence civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez are all examples.

This style is called for when: a values-behavior realignment is needed, for individuals, organizations, groups or na-tions; a transformation of currents is required; or elimination of disempowering beliefs is necessary. The stillness leader’s job is to be the change that she wishes to see, practice Karma Yoga (perform it and see it as sacred), demonstrate the liberating power that comes from the integration of light with shadow (both personal and/or collective light-shadow), develop Satyagraha (truth-love force) and Ahimsa (non-violence), and to question cherished beliefs and assumptions about life and self.

Stillness style is an introverted style, and not as common in the United States, said Johnson. It’s found in faith, activism work and Asian communities. Above all, it’s about having integrity—and being what we want others to be.

Advancing as a leader

Leadership, said Johnson, is about figuring out who you are and what you’re passionate about.

Find your style and flex it out. If you’re a lyrical leader, you may need to take extra steps to get credit for your invisible-relational work, as Joyce Fletcher has found in her invisible work research. It’s one of the reasons women aren’t getting promoted, said Johnson, along with the women needing to contain their work hours so that they can work a second shift at work.

Leadership is a dance of power, said Johnson, as she led session participants in a series of movement exercises to explain the disbursement of power kinesthetically. Participants were either leaders or followers; the exercises helped to demonstrate physically the dance that leaders and followers do together, and how intrinsically they are linked.

We each have a most and a least preferred leadership style that moves us. The styles blend in unique ways, making up our unique wave, each matching our situations.

Whether we lead from a position of hierarchy or lead from within, we all have the power to make a significant impact. Leading is setting the intention to make that difference—and doing it. It’s believing. It’s more than position, or charisma. Leading is a metaphor and an art, not a science. Lead with your followers, not over. As Johnson demonstrated, the leader-follower is an interdependent relationship.

Believing in yourself as a leader is part of becoming your true, authentic self. If you set an intent and it’s contrary to your action, you’ll create mindlessness. If your intent is in alignment with your action, you’ll create mindfulness.



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