This sample essay from Ultius will delve into how that, in the theory of leadership, one way to understand the skills behind managing people and leading them in the pursuit of communal gain is to understand leadership as an artform. The Denhardts, writing about how transformative leadership is critical in contemporary leadership strategies, argue that quality of leadership can be seen as an artistic quality.
The Dance of Leadership
The Dance of Leadership, written by Robert B. Denhardt and Janet V. Denhardt, is primarily characterized by the notion that leadership is an art. The Denhadts are professors of public policy administration, and are known for publishing new, digital-age leadership and policy philosophy that is intended to replace the extant systems that no longer apply to our changing world. They posit that one must study ways in which an artist is successful in order to mirror that success within one’s own attempts to lead. The Dance of Leadership is a text that sets the foundation for creating an understanding transformative leadership in any kind of organization—but does it work?
The authors argue that the criteria in this book will direct anyone to becoming a successful leader, as long as they are willing to work for it. This decades-old, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality is common among leadership advice. However, the authors also insert that the quality of leadership is actually an artistic quality. The book gathers and juxtaposes experiences from dancers, artists, and musicians against leaders in government, society, and business with the aim of presenting a different perspective on how one becomes a proficient leader.
People on either side of the artist/leader spectrum can have an aspect of leadership that is either innate, or based on training and experience. The authors imply however, that applying leadership requires preparation in the artistic sense. A leader needs to move the human spirit profoundly, and this type of ability is found mainly within the fields of the arts—music, dance, etc. That is what makes the difference. As opposed to blocky attempts at building a leader through a bland education in business and the repetition of clichéd platitudes, the authors instead posit that the building of a leader requires an establishing of a true awareness of space, time, and energy. The chapters in the book analyzed the points of view of both the group of artists and of the leaders, based on this true awareness. And this analysis is presented to the book’s readers through stories and interviews.
Artisitic performances and leadership
The authors assess that both artistic and organizational leadership share a similar bond, in which productivity manifests in attempting to use skill and expertise with the flow of energy, through space and time. They explain that just as artistic performances have rhythm so do the activities of a given organization. Leadership should revolve around the rhythm of activities within the organization, and continue to reflect the time (of the year) and space (departments and different capacities) in which that rhythm exists.
Furthermore, creativity and passion must be infused into the group’s rhythm so that a positive influence can take shape, and in turn help to accomplish daily tasks through its influence. The authors explain that dance presents rhetorical devices such as, imagery, metaphors, and symbols without the use of words. Such actions compel the emotions of the viewer, and in the same sense a leader can compel members to action by portraying certain actions of their own, without the use of words. Musicians will at times improvise to adjust the feelings of the crowd.
Leadership also requires improvisation at times to display the same desire that directs, or redirects spontaneous moments that can be used to build or create a better atmosphere within an organization. And while the improvisations of leaders seem more esoteric than simply adding a couple notes here and there, the general concept remains the same as in the arts, and holds as a valid executive tool.
The authors appropriately show that art and leadership commonly join to attain a theme that resonates, and this theme must be rooted in any group if it is to be properly led. They mean to prove to readers that leadership is not adequately built in a systematic step by step method, such as transactional leadership. The authors point that leadership is dynamic and perpetual, always adjusting and maintaining through active participation and focus, which is better achieved by artistic methods. It is improved by disciplined practice just as an artist learns and transforms.
The authors’ effort is also present by revealing different knowledge systems, and demonstrating that leadership found in the arts and that it also prevails in government, business, and society. A balance is created and maintained in the authors’ persuasion through their sharing that in any setting, true leadership requires self reflection along with trial and error to move forward.
The Dance of Leadership leaves out an important issue in the discussion of leaders. This issue is the idea of “good” versus “bad” leadership styles. Other texts on the subject of leadership written by famous theorists have considered these differences—where Burns considers that it is seemingly impossible to have a “bona fide” leader if there are questionable morals or values alongside that leader, Kellerman suggests that power and leadership go hand-in-hand whether or not it is viewed as having low moral standards or as being coercive (Sharpe 2006). But the authors of The Dance of Leadership simply avoid this question, which relegates the book to serve more as a tome of inspiration than as a thorough analysis of the field and philosophy of leadership.
Contemplative analysis of The Dance of Leadership
But perhaps this relegation to the “inspiration-pile” is precisely what the author’s intended. This book is not a squinty look into the dusty theories of what a leader is. Beyond the lack of expected minutiae that would come with a work such as that, the language of this book itself lends itself as proof to this assertion that it is more spirit-guide than contemplative analysis. Richard and Janet Denhardt have composed this book with language that mirrors a free and easy tone. The writing is casual. Not in such a way as to alienate the reader with hitherto unknown colloquialisms, but in such a way as to include the reader with an informal tone that invites one to feel comfortable and open. Here is a quote from the “Rhythm” chapter of the Denhardt’s book. Note the tone of it:
A steady rhythm is a sign of a good working order; it lets people know there is something regular and predictable they can count on. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone has to operate in the same rhythm. Nor does it mean that this rhythm should be mechanical-devoid of breath, spirit and energy. One important leadership skill is the capacity to identify different rhythms, become adept in different rhythmic structures, and translate across rhythmic boundaries. In or interview with Bill Post of Pinnacle West, he remarked,
“All rhythm is good. It’s just being able to identify that and mold the leadership to the rhythm rather than the other way around” (Denhardt).
The above quote feels inspiring. It makes the reader feel as if they have been given a certain insight into how large-scale leadership operations work. And the reader actually has been given this insight, but it may feel confusing at first. How exactly does one “feel” the rhythm of a group or company? And what exactly does adjusting to that rhythm consist of? The reader must consider their own experiences. What sort of music have they heard, what sort of rhythms are contained in that music, what types of activities were those pieces of music appropriate to? These types of questions might not get at exactly what the Denhardt’s were trying to say, but they do start the reader down a path of insight that will lead to new, interesting, and (hopefully) creative places.
But the quoted passage is not as comprehensive as it would need to be to implement it into a course of study for future leaders and business professionals. The concepts covered are far too vague, and lack any type of visual art to communitcate their ideas. There is some talk about how it is important to be able to “sense” the innate rhythms of a group and to work within and around them as they change or are changed proactively by you, the leader. This ability sounds like it would be quite useful, but the reader is excluded from it because there is no method or specific way to achieve it. You just have to “feel” your way in.
While this book brings up very interesting parallels between leadership and the arts, it disappoints because it only skates onto the surface of things. There is no discussion of establishing the implementation of these principles into a working environment. The disappointment is compounded when viewed against the wonderful level of fresh concepts that the authors bring to the forefront in this text.
While art enlivens the world and resides within powerful enterprises, it can also be considered to be inaccessible to some. Those wishing to further expand the influence of art into the business and leadership arenas would do well to take care that its sometimes esoteric nature does not alienate people.
It would be interesting to see the concepts of these two authors further developed into broadly applicable axioms in the fields of leadership and business. And it would be noteworthy if these axioms were clearly delineated so that their application could be easily attained without having to be a part of the “just feel it” club. A fuller study that included actual scientific method would be the best way to get this done—as opposed to just having interviews of artists’ and leaders’ personal and professional experiences. While The Dance of Leadership is a text that sets the foundation for creating an understanding transformative leadership in any kind of organization, its assertions need proofs and schematics before it can be considered to be a game-changer.
Denhardt, R.B. & Denhardt, J. (2006). The Dance of Leadership: The Art of Leading in
Business, Government, and Society. M.E. Sharpe.
Hersey, L.. (2007). Review of The Dance of Leadership: The Art of Leading in Business,
Government, and Society. Perspectives in Public Affairs. Retrieved from: http://www.asu.edu/mpa/book%20review.pdf