If you Hear the Music, you can Change the Dance

I once listened to a talk by a man named Wilford W. Andersen. In it he told a story that helps me think about changing.   He spoke of an episode that transpired on an Indian reservation.  An old man entered the office of a doctor.  The doctor asked the old man how he could help.  The response was silence.  The frustrated doctor tried again.  Finally the old man asked, “Do you dance?”

The doctor concluded that the reticent visitor must be a tribal medicine man who used music and dance to heal.  After a moment the wise doctor asked, “Can you teach me to dance?

The old man said, “I can teach you to dance, but you have to hear the music.

”When I was a teenager I went to many dances.  The quality of the music I heard had much to do with how I danced.  Sometimes in the middle of a dance people would complain and the DJ would change the music.  The enthusiasm for dancing would suddenly peak.

In organizations the analogy holds.  Researchers speak of the organizational effectiveness value chain. The chain unfolds in the following sequence: Leadership values – leadership behaviors – organizational culture – organizational climate – employee engagement – employee performance.

In organizations the dance is found at the end of the chain. Managers focus on the dance of employee performance and they try to get people to do the right steps.  They teach the steps, observe the steps, measure the steps and correct the steps.

Yet the people dance without enthusiasm.  Today over 70% of the workforce is unengaged and over 50% of the managers are unengaged.  People at work go through the motions in order to get a paycheck.  In most organizations the dance is conventional, normal or mediocre and managers do not know how to change the music.

Some careful observers would respond that the music is the culture. Conventional cultures are ultimately driven by assumptions that we all share. The shared assumptions act like an invisible set of governing rules. Here are some conventional assumptions. The people in organizations are self-interested and seek to minimize personal costs, they feel fear, prefer the status quo, stay in their roles, speak in politically correct ways, fail to see opportunities, compete for resources, experience conflict, deny feedback, fail to learn, under perform and personally stagnate.

These widely shared beliefs are self-reinforcing. A manager who makes these assumptions will act on them and thus reproduce them.   The conventional culture is self-reinforcing and continually regressing towards mediocrity. Most of us feel nothing can be done about it.

In the positive organization it is assumed that the people will embrace the common good, make spontaneous contributions, feel confident, seek growth, overcome constraints, expand their roles, express authentic voice, seize new opportunities, build social networks, nurture high quality connections embrace feedback and exceed expectations, learn and flourish. This culture is also self-reinforcing but the self-reinforcing cycle is moving up rather than down. It produces a different dance in which everyone is getting better.

The argument that the culture determines the dance is correct but it fails to note something very important. The culture emanates from a more basic place in the value chain. Leadership behaviors emanate from leadership values. When a leader reduces hypocrisy and better lives his or her values, they tend to transcend their own ego and their self-interest becomes the collective interest. In this more ideal state they radiate increased moral power and they communicate with increased authenticity. Researchers recognize this fact and they refer to the power of people in this state as idealized influence.

The music of positive organizing originates from the human conscience. It is the music of leadership and change. When we align with it, we begin to pursue the highest good. As our bodies move in new ways, others begin to move with us and soon the organization is dancing as it never danced before.

One interesting thing about this claim is that it reverses conventional logic. In the Western World we think of leadership in terms of knowing and doing. The task is to know more and do better. Managers tell employees how they should change their behavior and executives tell managers how to change their behavior. The emphasis is always on the dance.

I fall into this trap regularly. I get caught up in my ego and I become so anxious to impress that I tightly embrace the expert role. I expect others to change because I have authority, I give rational explanations and tell them how to move their feet. While I am watching, they sometimes try but seldom with enthusiasm.

The positive perspective is not soft. In it accountability is astronomical. All failures in others trace back to failures in us. Leadership begins with changing the being state of the leader. It is about self-change, transcending the ego and pursuing the higher good. It is about continually becoming a better person with more and more idealized influence. It is about using that idealized influence to attract people to the co-creation of an emerging future. It is about building trust while constantly challenging their existing assumptions so they can hear the new music. Such a system is an integrated learning organization where people can flourish and exceed expectations.

When I hear the music of the highest good and I begin to move my body to it, I get energized and the people around me get curious. Soon they hear the music and their bodies begin to move in new ways. The great discovery is that the leader does not create the music. It is already there and it is always changing. The leader’s job is to hear the music and dance to it. When I do, some of the other people hear the music and the organization begins to move in a new way.


What music am I hearing?

How enthusiastic is my dance?

How could we use this passage to become a more positive organization?


2 thoughts on “If you Hear the Music, you can Change the Dance

  1. Thank you. This is a wonderful article on how we, as leaders, need to ‘hear the music’ so we can share it with those around us. If you don’t show you are happy at your job, whatever it may be, those around you feel it.


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