The Parallels between being a Ballroom Dancer and a Leader: How dancing has taught me more about being a better leader

By Erin Levzow, VP of Marketing Technology, Del Taco Restaurants Inc.

Almost a year ago I started ballroom dancing. It was a Christmas Gift to Fred Astaire near our home. I like to dance, but had never done ballroom dance or much partner dancing of any kind other then maybe in a few theatre productions. I took a leap and tried it out.

I of course fell in love with it and a year later have the entire family dancing too, the kids are the cutest! But I digress, I have been thinking a lot about how it has helped me grow in areas that have nothing to do with dance and I want to share that with all of you.

  1. Trust – I have to trust my partner completely for this to work. It really does take two to tango (that must be where it comes from LOL) but if you don’t have trust it will never be as good as it can be and that goes for teamwork as well. Our teams need to support and have trust in the workplace to produce the best possible work.
  2. Openness to try new things – Not only was ballroom new for me but being lifted, tilted, dipped (I’m sure there are fancy ballroom names for these terms) and at first I was scared, I didn’t allow myself to be vulnerable and try new things. I often talk about how much I love Brene Brown’s speech on vulnerability and then when I was put in this situation I felt myself armor up and get nervous, scared and back away. In order to do any of these moves I have to allow myself to be open to learning and doing them
  3. Practice – I can’t get better without it, sounds simple but of course the more I work at it the better I get. Same with work and continuing to learn and stay on my game. Digital and Marketing consistently evolves and I need to evolve with it.
  4. Everyone leads and follows differently – This is situational leadership at its finest! When I first began I expected that everyone would lead me just as my partner Zach did. I would fumble when I practiced with others that were stronger, softer, or used different moves, but eventually I realized that everyone leads differently and while the fundamentals are the same it is completely okay to adapt to someone else and that goes both ways. Same with work. Everyone is different and everyone needs something different from me as a leader, they may need someone to listen, guide, consult, coach but it isn’t a cookie cutter approach to everyone however the fundamentals are the same.
  5. Failure – Oh boy this is a big one. Have I failed!? I have missed moves, forgotten complete dances, stepped on my partner (sorry!) and walked off the floor feeling defeated. Someone said to me this weekend, “Leave it on the floor,” and I thought that is exactly what I tell folks at work. Fail Fast Fail Forward. We learn, we move on. We shake it off and go out and improve each time. Failure is hard, sometimes I feel the tears coming up because I am disappointed in myself for both work, dance, being a mom, and all the other titles I hold. I am not perfect but remembering that no one is and I need to Leave it on the floor is so important. Keep pushing forward. Failure will happen and should happen it is how we adapt to it and push forward that matters. I’m still dancing even after all of this.
  6. Control – Okay, I like to control, oh everything. You are thinking, really Erin that’s surprising (I know, I know), but I do. People say, Control what you can and if it was up to me it would be all the things LOL. Turns out in Dance you can’t. You can’t control your partner, you can’t control what moves he leads you in and you absolutely can’t control the scores you get from the judges. What can I control? My attitude I bring onto the floor, my body, my frame (dance position), my hips (maybe and only sometimes, still working on this one LOL), my level of effort and how I respond to the leaders. Hmmm clearly the same for work, this is what I can control and the rest I need to release and be okay with. (easier said than done but something I work on both professionally and personally)
  7. Joy – Do what you love and you will love what you do. Dance should be fun! It is easy to get overwhelmed by wanting to be perfect, controlling things, feeling the failure but if it ever loses the joy of it then I need to move on. I feel the same about work. I truly love what I do and we should. We spend more time at work then we do often with our families, if we lose the love we need to re-evaluate why we do what we do and what we should be doing. For now, Dance and my work bring me tons of joy.
  8. Multi-tasking – Someone tried to convince me last year that multi tasking isn’t a thing and you can’t truly multi-task. All I can say to that, tell that to a dancer. Not only am I feeling the music, counting, thinking about if my hips are doing “Cuban motion (they don’t normally),” where are my feet, connecting with my partner, smile or show the right emotion, look the right way, stand up straight, oh and then all the moves, you can’t tell me that this isn’t multi-tasking. Being aware of all of that takes skill. And then the leader has to also keep us on track on a floor full of people making sure we look graceful and don’t collide with anyone. It is an art all of it’s own. At work, we all have 100 things happening and being able to balance them, be aware of our environment, team and keep those facial expressions in check.  

I never would have thought my fun hobby would teach me so much but it’s funny how it all adds up.

Alright enough typing…let’s dance! 

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