Doing the Leadership Tango

By Irv Rubin

January 21, 2014

Effective leadership is akin to a tango. Everyone knows who is the formal leader before the dance begins. But once the action starts effective leadership reflects a flexible dynamic moving partnership, quality of a relationship. Knowing your ABCs—“awareness” of your “behavior” and its “consequences”—is a key leadership building block.

As an adjunct faculty member at the Federal Executive Institute, I teach a leadership course called The ABCs of Effective Relationships, which focuses on the skills and tools for translating common sense into common practice. The aim is to narrow the natural gap between knowing what to do and how to do it.

The opening exercise allows participants to reflect on their own experiences with the tango of leadership. First they are asked to identify a person they would find themselves most likely to follow, and then they rank the importance of eight sets of behaviors that their ideal leader should possess. The responses weave an interesting story, raising several leadership challenges and implications.

Here are the behaviors and the percentage of participants who rated them as the most important:

The behaviors reflect a simple relationship model comprising eight styles and two energy modes. "Describe," "prescribe," "appreciate" and "inspire" reflect push energy—being understood by you and getting my points across to you. "Attend," "ask," "understand" and "empathize" reflect pull energy—striving to understand the points you are trying to get across to me.

Two conclusions jump out. First, the four pull styles are of significantly lesser relative importance than the four push styles. Second, there were no clear standout behaviors within those subsets. That means successful leaders should treat people according to their individual needs and be flexible. But achieving this has its challenges.

Leaders must be aware of their follower’s style, needs and preferences. Traditional 360 assessments are not designed to facilitate this level of leader awareness. Why? Because their employees—like themselves—are unique individuals. In other words, the No. 1 behavioral choices their tango partners will have of the ideal leader will have the same variability as their leaders. Anonymous aggregated feedback can leave leaders asking: “How should I strive to change my own behavior to meet the diversity of needs among my followers?”

A global across-the-board change will not address that reality, and it can make it worse. A leader’s behavior may be a solid fit for Person A but a total misfit for Person B. A behavioral shift based on anonymous aggregated data that is known to reflect important individual preferences can upset an already well-oiled apple cart.

Seeking behaviorally specific, direct face-to-face feedback from each of their tango partners is common sense. It takes courage to put it into common practice, but that’s what real leadership is about.

Irv Rubin, president of the management consulting firm Temenos Inc., is an adjunct professor at the Federal Executive Institute and a former associate professor at MIT Sloan School of Management.          

(Image via Marko Poplasen/

By Irv Rubin

January 21, 2014