The three ways leaders should learn to dance

We are not talking about a literal dance, but about how you navigate interactions within your team, within your organization and in the world all around you.

Steffan Surdek
December 5, 2022
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As a co-creative leader, you have to adapt to the volatility, uncertainty and complexity of the modern business world. You can do this by approaching the day-to-day situations you encounter differently.

One of the key skills of co-creative leaders is dancing with the system. A system is any group of people who are interacting. You are a part of many systems everywhere in your life. This could be your employees, your management team, a whole department, even your entire organization.

As a co-creative leader, you need to show up in a way that allows you to recognize those complexities and to fluidly move with them. In this article, I'll explain how dancing starts with learning to navigate those interactions.

What does it mean to learn to dance?

I am borrowing the name of this skill from Jurgen Apello in his book Management 3.0, when he talks about systemic thinking. I like to use the term “dancing” because it really illustrates the idea behind this skill.

We are not talking about choreographed dancing, but more of a free-flowing interactive dance like salsa or ballroom dancing. You are moving with the system to create the dance in the moment.

When you introduce or try something, the system reacts or adjusts and then it’s your turn to take the next step. Sometimes, the system will want to dance and play with you, and other times it will not. In either case, there is a continuous flow of interactions between you and your dance partner.

Seeing my interactions with clients as a dance, as well as a natural back and forth allows me to have more fun and increase my resilience when hitting bumps on the road. It also allows me to meet clients where they were at and nudge them forward from there.

Let’s explore the three ways you need to consider to begin mastering this skill.

#1 - Dancing with your company culture

You may or may not be aware of your company culture, but it is definitely there and it has an impact on what happens every day. This culture created itself over time through the behaviours of the various leaders as well as the behaviours of everyone else in the company.

Trying to change or evolve your company culture takes time and it starts with your ability to see the company culture as it is. It is the idea of having more awareness as a leader. This awareness can lead you to see things differently.

It can also lead you to be more open and understanding when you see things stalling because of the culture. I am not telling you to tolerate it and accept things will never change.

It also comes down to the idea of seeing the impact of your leadership game on the culture of your team or organization. Instead of ignoring the issue or getting mad, you can choose to dance with it to create something different for the group.

#2 - Dancing with the maturity level of your team

Notice that I am separating culture from maturity level. There are times you can tie them together and they are one and the same, but it is not always the case.

As a leader, you can dance with the maturity level of your team. Does the team depend on you to make a final decision on every single topic? How do you want your team to grow or evolve in the next year?

Dancing with the maturity level of your team means you are actively trying things to help your team grow and work better together. An example of this would be clearly giving them more decision-making authority in certain areas. Another example would be to encourage them to have real conversations together.

Once again, the dance starts with your awareness of the maturity level of your team. Either high or low, what does it create in the group dynamics? What does your team need to develop together to get to that next level? What does your team need from you now?

#3 - Dancing with the overall system

Systems naturally adapt and react to what is happening around them. For example, imagine a branch that falls into a stream and blocks it. What happens to the water? It gets redirected and begins flowing in a different direction around the branch to adapt accordingly.

In an organization, these complex adaptive systems can represent different teams or departments working together. The number of systems around you can grow quickly and exponentially.

To begin the dance, start paying attention to what your system is telling you. What you see and hear will help you better direct and guide it in a fluid and dynamic way.

By listening to what people inside a system are saying, you will start getting a better understanding of their dynamics, beliefs, capabilities and needs. Dancing with the system means to recognize these elements, acknowledge them and help the group work through them. When you start to notice these things, you can start to better support your teams.

To learn more, we talk more about this subject in an deep-dive article about systemic thinking.


What I am trying to do right now is to give you a different way of looking at your team. Dancing can mean learning to dance with your company culture. There are times you will want to try something and the culture will fight back to prevent this from happening.

It can be natural for this to happen, so look for opportunities to take incremental steps. You can also laugh about it when the culture gets in the way of helping something different to happen.

You can also dance with the maturity level of your team. This means interacting with your team in a way that meets them where they are currently at and nudging them a tad further.

Think about it as the rubber band principle. When you take a rubber band and stretch it regularly, it comes back to its regular size but not quite. It slowly expands little by little. You will not get there on the first try but you will get there if you keep dancing with it.

Finally, you can dance with the overall system. Instead of being reactive all the time, take a moment to put your ear to the ground and listen to the system.

What are the systems around you talking about? How could you create a way of doing your own dance inside your organization?