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No, The Dancing Guy Does Not Teach The Best Leadership Lessons

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Derek Sivers (who has done some good stuff — see The Best Posts, Articles & Videos About Learning From Mistakes & Failures) has a very popular TED Talk called Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy. Here’s the video of his three-minute talk, and you can read the transcript here:

Unfortunately, at least through my eyes as a nineteen-year community organizer and nine-year high school teacher, he teaches all the wrong lessons about leadership.

A leader who shares the values of democracy, justice, and diversity (among other things) and is serious about building long-lasting change — change that will not be dependent on him/her — does not begin by coming up with an idea and acting on it.

Instead, that kind of leader begins by leading with his/her ears, asking people what they see that needs to be done, then testing out his/her idea, getting reactions from others so that the idea can be adapted in a minor or major way so that something can be improved and become their idea, too.

Yes, a dancing guy can get people dancing at a concert for a short time, but then those dancers will forget about him in a few hours. An inspirational speaker can get people “jazzed-up” for a short-time after a speech. A teacher can get dressed-up in a costume and put on a performance for a class period or constantly be an entertaining “sage on stage” and maybe get students engaged for a short-time.

But it’s the trust that’s built through relationships, the ownership that’s built through listening and “buy-in,” the supportive environment that those elements build that encourage many people to take risks, and the mutual accountability that’s created as a result — that’s what creates a culture of learning, challenge and change. And I do want leaders — lots and lots of them. I want as many people — students and others — to develop the leadership skills of listening, risk-taking, holding others accountable and being willing to be held accountable. This kind of leader wants to develop other leaders, not just followers.

That what I want in my classroom, and that’s what I think needs to be present in any kind of organization that wants to make serious change that supports the kind of values I believe in.

What do you think?

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

6 Comments

  1. I use a different “dancing man” metaphor for educational leadership. I sometimes include the “Where in the hell is Matt?” “Dancing” video. Because to me a leader is someone who uses a unique entry point and boundless but consistent energy in order to make people see something they otherwise would not see.

    it isn’t easy and one iteration won’t do it, but eventually it inspires and transforms. and, as the “Dancing” video illustrates, the best leadership eventually fades into the background.

    As for the Dancing Men who run the keynote circuit, some are brilliant, some are charlatans, all risk being nothing but entertainers. Creating change requires more, change lies in the prep work and the follow up, in the relationships which get built which allow a leadership connection.

    I recently keynoted an event, and despite devoting some 10 hours that day (and a few the day before) talking and working with people, and despite building a resource collection for everyone, it still felt very incomplete.

  2. Thanks for this!

    Just yesterday I had my annual review as the upper grades division head & Academic Dean at our school. Those of us on the leadership team, thankfully, have some voice in drafting our ‘priority objectives’ for leadership in the following year. I had listed “Empower and support leadership colleagues, and improve collaboration strategies with rising admin/staff personnel” as objective #1 for next year. Our Head of School not only affirmed, but insisted, that this should remain my most important objective for the year, and we explored a range of opportunities to step out of the ‘limelight’ of ‘traditional’ leadership to create space for other admin, staff, and teacher leaders to learn and to lead. This was an affirmation to me, at so many levels, of the more healthful learning community–and leadership community–you represent in the post.

    I’m happy to be the dancing loony in the clearing, when the circumstances require–don’t get me wrong–but I’m relieved not just to be allowed, but to be encouraged, to rely on organic innovation, the insight and experience of colleagues, and less centralized initiative than on the logic of ‘leaders and followers’ and the psychology of crowds.

    Chris Thinnes | @CurtisCFEE

  3. Larry,
    I get a totally different message from the Dancing Guy. I’m sort of a mid level leader, so I have to think 360 degree influence. The message here is that the first or second follower is way more important than Mr. Shirtless. In my work at ED and the union I always make it a point to dance with (amplify) those doing positive work and ignore those doing other things. This video guides me as a follower, not so much as a leader.

    On the other hand I spend a certain amount of time as that “lone nut” as well praying that others might join in. Sometimes even when you dance in response to the aspirations of others, they are afraid to join, often for very legitimate reasons. You need a couple of co-nuts to get things going.

    This video had some personal value for me. There’s more than meets the eye. I appreciate your critique, but don’t be so quick to dismiss it.

  4. “. . .the ownership that’s built through listening and “buy-in,” the supportive environment that those elements build that encourage many people to take risks, and the mutual accountability that’s created as a result — that’s what creates a culture of learning, challenge and change. . .” To me, this quote summarizes what a good leader brings to an organization in his/her effort to choreograph the many talents, challenges, voices and potential people contribute to the organization in many, varied roles. Organizations need the “dancing man,” teacherpreneurs, traditionalists, innovators and many more to succeed and thrive. The strength comes in an organization’s ability to converse, set goals and create systems that promote best effect for all students.

  5. I agree with Steve. It’s not about the leader at all…it’s about the first follower (who is also a leader), the leader welcoming him as an equal and working together with him, attracting the second follower, the leader doing something that is simple so others can easily follow, etc.
    Listen to the transcript again because I think it backs up many of the points you are making here. You might just be able to use Derek’s points to support to what you are saying…

    The innovators and early adopters are always the first followers and it’s about getting to the tipping point when you can finally bring the late majority and the laggards along (this is why many folks still have flip phones no matter how amazing smart phones are).

    Often you need to target the most motivated to reach the tipping point when the late majority and the laggards eventually come along. Dancing guy welcomed others to make his solo dance a whole lot better, he showed them that you don’t have to dance perfectly, you just have to dance and they did all dance together…same ideas you have :)

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