Come Together: The role of leadership

This is part of Come Together, a series about defining, building, growing, and sustaining our dance communities.

In our last entry in this series, we looked at what defines a successful community. As I have worked to build my own community in San Francisco, I’ve looked at a lot of other communities and spoken with a lot of community leaders. At one point, a leader of another community told me I would need someone else to work with me because I wasn’t charismatic enough to build a community. She was wrong in that I was able to build a community without some sort of “personality” by my side, but it’s also true that the community here is not like hers. So I became more interested in leadership – what it means to be a leader, what we do as leaders, and our role in creating community. 

I’ve been interested in leadership for years, ever since working at a nonprofit with very ineffective leadership. I’ve since gone on to work with leaders of organizations as a consultant, leaders of teams as a coach, and study leadership as a student of organization development. There’s a lot of literature out there on leadership, and lots of different philosophies and frameworks, but I want to focus on the core functions of our community leaders in the dance world.

(Side note: In this article, when I refer to a “leader” I’m speaking about community leaders, not the role in the dance.)

I’m fascinated by how different leaders lead different communities, and how those communities almost always reflect their leaders – their personalities, their values, and their priorities. Why are some communities more competitive and other less so? Why are some communities more successful at attracting new dancers while others grow more stagnant in their growth? While there are a lot of factors that influence any community, a critical factor is the community’s leadership.

How do we define a community leader? Oftentimes we speak of our leaders as those in positions of authority – people in charge of venues and events, people with demonstrated proficiency or expertise, and people with valued experience. In general, these people are our champions, teachers, event directors, and organizers and hosts.

But being an effective leader goes beyond being in a position of authority. According to John Kotter, a professor of leadership at Harvard Business School and a best-selling author on the subject, leadership is about articulating a vision of the future, aligning people with that vision, and then motivating them to move towards that vision, even in the face of obstacles. If people in positions of authority want to be effective leaders, they must also motivate and support people to join them towards a clear vision. Another way to put it: a leader is not a leader if he or she does not have followers.

(By the way, Kotter also distinguishes leadership from management, the former being about vision and change while the latter is about running processes and getting things done. In our dance communities, our leaders are often responsible for both – they are the people who not only influence the direction of the community but also organize classes, dances, and events. Sometimes the leaders will delegate the execution to other people, or work in partnerships or teams to get things done – as I’ve learned myself, it’s hard to do it all by yourself, and I’ve had lots of people helping me from the start. Still, for the sake of brevity I will collapse the two and just use the term “leader” – much to Kotter’s dismay….)

So what does this mean for people trying to build, grow, or sustain their local dance communities? Leaders are those who help define and bring along others towards a community where people grow as dancers and develop positive relationships with others. To achieve this, community leaders have four principle responsibilities:

  • Vision
  • Resources
  • Execution
  • Culture

Vision is having a clear picture of a future state; in this case, a sense of what the community will be and look like if successful. Who do you see coming to the dance? How do those people enter and engage with your community? What sort of environment do you want to foster? How do you want people to interact with each other? Having clarity on these elements can not only provide a leader with focus for decision-making but also present a specific offering that will attract others.

Using Mission City Swing (MCS) as an example, we have had a mission statement from the start, and as we have grown, we continue to review, update, and aspire towards that vision. But more importantly, our mission has driven the approaches we take (a discussion for another blog) and the way we do things, which has shaped the kind of community we have. We wanted to create a friendly, welcoming community where people developed as dancers. This has led us to focus on lots of educational programming, discounts for new dancers, and a code of conduct, among other things. Having a clear vision and strategies means choosing to do some things and not others, which will then define the particular character and composition of your community.

Resources are all the things the community will need to thrive. Yes, this includes financial capital or revenue, but it also includes human capital in terms of staff and volunteers and social capital in terms of good relationships with and between others. It also includes other infrastructure like marketing, technology, and any policies you may have (like a code of conduct or a class registration policy). The leader must work to ensure that the community has what it needs to continue offering its services and planning for long-term sustainability.

In my experience, the financial aspect can be a real limiting factor. Some leaders have full-time jobs outside of dance, and they are more comfortable investing in their communities. Myself, I started MCS when I started freelance consulting, so admittedly I have tried to run things on as lean a budget as possible. Still, I had to invest in sound equipment, lights, food, and other supplies that would help create a high-quality experience for the community. As we’ve grown, I’ve been more willing to invest in things like improving our sound equipment, because we want to continue providing a positive experience for our patrons and it’s worth it. Now we’re at a point where we’re investing in our registration process, programs to make our community more cohesive, and offering more opportunities to get involved in the community. These require some financial capital and a lot of human capital in terms of people’s time.

Execution is making things happen. The things that need to happen are anything and everything from holding classes and hosting a dance to advertising and community-building. In some communities, one person is principally responsible for execution, but often this is a shared responsibility with others. For instance, a host may hire a teacher for classes or a DJ for the dance. Local swing dance clubs often share responsibilities for organizing dances and events. In all cases, it’s hard to execute everything by yourself, which is why it’s important that leaders have followers and offer them opportunities to get involved.

I don’t know any leader who doesn’t have a team of people supporting them. And not just volunteers who help at the door – people who contribute meaningful ideas and take on responsibility for major operational tasks. I’ll give a shout out to Hieu Le, who runs Swingesota – he does an amazing job leading his community with a clear vision, but he also has a great team helping him (shout out to Etta, Renae, Nikki Z, and the many others who make Swingesota possible!). At MCS, I still run the place, but we have a Leadership Team in development – Kathleen manages our volunteers, Maggie makes sure our tech is in order, Jodie is helping with marketing, Annie is supporting our educational programming, and Luna is leading the charge on community building efforts. Each community will work differently – in its structure and function – but things must get done, and it will almost always be done by more than one person.

Culture consists of a shared set of values, beliefs, attitudes, and norms. When we think of a venue and its atmosphere or character or brand, a big part of our impression is derived from its culture. How do people behave towards one another? How do they dress, talk, and interact? What do they seem to value and accept? And what is considered taboo or unacceptable? Every community has its own culture, and a community’s leaders define, shape, and reinforce that culture through their own actions (whether they know it or not). By virtue of being in a position of authority, others will look to the leader for cues through their words and their actions about what is important and how they should behave. Communities always reflect the words, attitudes, and actions of their leaders, and leaders should be mindful of how they are influencing their followers – and what behaviors they are reinforcing or deterring through their own actions.

Take, for example, two community leaders I know who are very competition and performance driven. They’ve done a great job building a talented, fun, energetic community in their city, and like their leaders, they are very driven to compete and perform. I’ll give another shout out to Michelle Crozier, who is doing a great job building a community in the South Bay at her venue, Do Your Own Swing. Michelle has been a very successful competitor and performer, and she does a great job engaging her students in competitions and preparing them for events. By contrast, I’m not as keen on competing, and I don’t go out of my way to encourage my students to compete. This has been helpful for those who feel pressure from their peers to compete but don’t want to, but it also meant it took me awhile to figure out how to support my students who are driven to compete. I’ve focused mostly on learning and growing regardless of competitive status, and we have a community that is very focused on learning and practicing, sometimes for competition but always to be better to have better dances. Again, the leader’s focus will shape the culture of the community.

Effective leaders will successfully take on (and/or share) these responsibilities. They will articulate a vision that inspires and motivates others. They will secure and manage the resources needed to build and sustain the community. They will make sure things happen efficiently and effectively, by taking ownership of the tasks and sharing responsibility with others to get them done. They will foster a positive, welcoming culture through their words and their actions. And throughout it all, they will remove barriers to entry and obstacles to success, be responsive to their followers, continuously energize their followers, and support others in moving towards the vision with them.

Some leaders are assuming some of these responsibilities with more intention than others. For instance, in my experience, there are leaders who are focused on running a dance or hosting classes but not thinking about creating community or how they’re fostering culture. The downside is that whether or not they plan for it, leaders are influencing the community and their culture. So if leaders don’t intentionally set out to create community – and a culture that supports it – they may end up with a group of people who don’t feel connected, or a culture that can impede community growth. But if success is a community where people can both develop as dancers and develop relationships, leaders must think beyond the operational to what kind of community they are building – and how to support it. They must think of their vision in the context of the current marketplace or landscape, they must think of the strategies they will employ to build or sustain a community, and they must consider the kind of environment and social norms they want to establish and reinforce.

There are many types of leadership, and there are many that can be effective for different types of communities (or different stages of the same community). However, regardless of the leader’s style and approach, it’s important to keep in mind that our communities are normative organizations, meaning that membership is voluntary, based on shared goals and interests. We cannot force people to join and stay in our communities; rather we must motivate and inspire them by offering them a rewarding experience that meets their own goals and interests. To that end, leaders will be more successful when they take a customer orientation and work to support and satisfy the interests of the community.

Unfortunately, there are some organizers and teachers in our communities who are not focused on community interests. Sometimes they prioritize their own business interests over those of the community. Sometimes they allow their personal feelings to get in the way of doing what’s best for the community. Sometimes they disrupt the current community in their efforts to achieve a new vision, but they hurt people and negatively impact the community in the process. Yes, it’s important to make enough money to sustain the business, and yes, sometimes changing the community for the better means difficulties in the short term for bigger rewards in the long term. However, good leaders will balance these priorities in service of others, supporting and reinforcing the community in the pursuit of the vision.

Effective leaders are necessary for a community’s success but not sufficient; there are a number of other important factors that we will explore further in this series. However, leaders play a key role in defining, shaping, building, and sustaining a community through what they say, what they do, and how they do it. Knowing their role, their influence, and their responsibilities can help them to succeed in supporting and serving their communities.

But what do you think? If you think of your own dance community, what sort of leadership does it have? What have your leaders done well and what are some things they could do better? What role do you think leaders play in defining, building, and sustaining a local dance community? What is the culture and how does it reflect your leaders? What qualities or leadership styles do you think work best in your own communities? If you are a leader, how do you think about your place in – and your influence over – the community you lead?

4 comments

  1. I believe a key part of leadership is Modeling. How do leaders demonstrate and lead by example? In my tech, dance and academic career, those leaders who actually walk the walk – outwardly demonstrate the Values that they want in their community – are the ones who inspire loyalty, and people are willing to devote their time and resources.

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