Leadership as dance: how helpful is it as a metaphor?


An academic paper was lead of several researchers who claim there is an urgent need to utilize insights from the arts, aesthetics and the humanities to expand our understanding of leadership. It endeavors to do this by exploring the metaphor of dance. It begins by examining current policy metaphors used in the leadership literature that present a narrow and functional view of leadership. It presents and discusses a conceptual model of leadership as dance that incorporates key dimensions

‘the arts must be taken no less seriously than the sciences as modes of discovery, creation, and enlargement of knowledge in the broad sense of advancement of the understanding’ Goodman and Elgin

Since the beginning of civilization, human beings have used different styles of dance as a social, ritual and cultural practice. As a language of the body, dance has always been a powerful way of communicating.It works within various constraints such as space, time and music.

In their work that explores the dance of leadership within business, government and society, Denhardt and Denhardt (2006) argue that much of leadership defies scientific explanation and, for this reason, they critique mainstream approaches and focus their discussion on aspects of leadership that have been under-researched. These aspects include aesthetics, emotions, subtlety and the ambiguity of leadership. From the creative arts they borrow notions such as imagery, symbolism in communication, the role of creativity and improvisation, and the rhythms of human interactions.


Learning the language of dance is like learning the language of leadership; it implies not only an understanding of the rules and for the dancers / leaders being technical proficient but also requires the demonstration of artistry and emotional and kinesthetic knowledge, i.e., connoisseurship. Demonstration of artistry involves leaders using not only their heads (or cognitive knowledge) but also their hearts, hands and bodies (or kinesthetic knowledge) in working with and alongside others (Palus 2002). Kinesthetic knowledge is important because it acknowledges that leadership is a type of bodily performance (Sinclair 2005) where leaders experience the world in and through their bodies (Ropo and Parviainen 2001). This is more than merely an awareness of body language; it refers to leaders’ sensitivity to movement and space, and to their presence and others’ presence in the world (Ropo and Parviainen 2001)


The next section refers to five perennial tensions that are inherent in both types of performance. These are presented to illustrate the point that both leadership and dance are complex, dynamic and performance based processes:

discipline vs passion — classical ballet requires discipline with formal training and technique, rigid choreography but usually lacks in passion to liven the dance...passion is intensity, emotion, and feeling that can overcome, overwhelm or inspire a dancer or a leader

traditions vs innovation – classical ballet (tradition) vs modern dance (innovation – tango)...innovation cant exist without some traditions staying entact

status quo vs social change — classical ballet vs contemporary dance of the time and culture

mind vs body – linguistic (intellect/rational mind) knowledge vs kinestic knowledge that involves emotion, intuition and physical skills – 'mental mastery' over 'bodily performance'

heirarchy vs democracy – classical ballet (choreographer, soloist, dancers) vs (justice league, relational leadership distributed among the members)

Researchers argue that this is a powerful way to capture the non-quantifiable elements of leadership which we believe more fully illuminates its essential nature, especially as a form of tacit knowledge. Leadership as dance opens up possibilities to view it as an alternative language and by utilizing a different language, new words and new worlds can be envisioned.

A central platform of our argument was that leadership is more than simply a set of techniques or skills that can be learned; rather, it is a type of nuanced artistic bodily performance that requires leaders to acknowledge themselves as emotional, intuitive, and ethical actors. An important contribution of this article was a conceptual model of leadership as dance that drew inspiration from a variety of sources including aesthetics, the arts, dance studies and leadership studies.

Read more on this article here: https://eprints.qut.edu.au/52719/2/c51729.pdf

Using embodied knowledge to unlock innovation, creativity and intelligence in business