Last week, I was lucky enough to accompany a good friend to a performance of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Throughout the program, each dancer embodied exquisite counterpoints of grace and strength, precision and fluidity. And as art is meant to, that performance stuck with me, its meaning radiating out into my life and work. It wasn’t long before I began seeing the parallels between these beautiful dancers and the leaders I’ve had the privilege to work with for over a decade.
Strength and Grace
One need only look at a dancer’s body to see that their work requires incredible strength. But without the counterpoint of grace, they’re not dancers – just muscly people who can pick each other up at will. Useful? I guess. But who wants to work with someone who scoops you up without warning and may not set you down gently or in the place you expect?
Similarly, no one will deny it takes strength and stamina to fully step into your own leadership potential. But leaders who rely solely on their strength can fall into the trap of picking people up and putting them where they “should” go rather than leading them there. And people who do this repeatedly eventually get called out for what they are: bullies. Grace must accompany strength if it is to be of any use in the long term.
What does graceful leadership mean to you? How do you know when you’re embodying grace?
Precision and Fluidity
The first dance on the program last Wednesday drew my attention to a particular company member. She was so precise. So exact. But after focusing on her for a few moments, I realized it was her precise stillness coupled with her fluid quality of motion that made her so engaging. She hit her mark, then flowed, floated, poured herself across the stage to hit the next mark at exactly the right moment. This pairing of stillness and fluid motion was astonishing and inspiring. Watch it. See what I mean.
As leaders, we’re responsible for hitting a lot of marks: bringing in money, delivery programs on budget, getting butts in seats, meeting others’ (and our own) expectations on a number of fronts. Hitting those marks is critical. But a dancer wouldn’t be doing her job if she simply ran from place to place, flinging her arms into formation when she paused. It is the quality of motion between and toward goals that truly makes a leader. The flexibility to bend around obstacles. The fluidity to move through the daily challenges of making a difference in the world. The precision to stop at just the right moment to celebrate and then reach even higher.
How would you describe the quality of your motion toward your goals? What would make your movement more fluid?
How are you honoring the need for stillness? What would make your stillness more precise?
The Company and the Spirit
The final dance on the program last week was a piece by Alvin Ailey himself. Choreographed 50 years ago, it speaks to the power of spirit, spirituality, and community. Together, the dancers wept, comforted, celebrated, mourned, and began anew. They held each other accountable. They congratulated, they scolded, they prayed. They gave thanks, and they reached for more. And as they did, there was no single leader. Building, flowing, weaving, they moved as a whole.
By the final movement of the piece, every dancer in that company was on stage, and it was nearly impossible for those of us in the audience to stay in our seats. The spirit that moved through those dancers had also flowed into all of us in the theater.
Leaders must be ready to accept the spotlight that comes with a solo performance. But we must also feel the spirit that moves through our colleagues. And we must be ready to move to the place that inspires our entire community to access their spirit – even if that place is behind the curtain.
How is the spirit moving through you? What will you do today to share that spirit with your community?
I'm interested in what keeps us engaged in our work, the world, and each other.