Leadership lessons from the dance studio

I have done a very silly thing.

With just 13 months to go until my 40th birthday I have signed myself up to be in a dance show.

It all began rather innocently when I found out about this brilliant dance studio, run by ex-West End and Royal Ballet dancers that offer classes for all ages and abilities.

I danced in my teens and early twenties and it was my first love, before even Jason Donovan. I wasn't bad at it either. So when I found this place I wanted to recapture some of the pure joy that dancing first gave me. And it was cool because, along with the very bendy glamourous young things, and the cutest toddlers in tutus you've ever seen, there are enough other 'old birds with day jobs' to make me feel safe. And, oh, its brilliant. I adore it. 

Except this week something happened. With just 5 weeks to go until this show (that seemed like a great idea at a distance) reality has hit us. You see, we aren't dancers. We don't do this every day. We are a bit self-concious in our costumes, and aware that we aren't as bendy as we once were. Some of us have daughters in the same show FGS. We know that we have got some steps wrong before, and we are worrying about getting them right each time. And today, at practice, we had the closest thing to a complete rollocking that our lovely studio director was able to give. In exasperation he handed us over to his dance captain (young, bendy, wears a high cut leotard in a totally non-ironic way) and left the room. Ouch.

Bendy Dance Captain then told us that our main problem was our performance levels. We weren't sexy enough, we weren't relaxed enough.

No shit. We have an average age of around 35. We spend 40 hours a week sitting at desks, or standing in classrooms and one hour in the studio shimmying. We're terrified of getting the steps wrong, letting our team down, making idiots of ourselves. Relaxed has not even made the field of play. Sexy??? I'd laugh if I wasn't so petrified.

And that's the crux of it. The human brain does not do fear and freedom at the same time. While the brain is screaming "DO NOT F*** THIS UP" there is absolutely no part of it that can also say "You got this, you gorgeous creature - knock 'em dead". Fact. It's neuroscience. When we are scared ("oh god I'm going to mess this up!"), angry ("why am I being so STUPID?!"), sad ("I used to be so much better at this, where's my life gone?"), disgusted ("oh dear lord look at my thighs in that mirror"), ashamed ("what must he think of me?") we generate a neurochemical called Cortisol. 

Cortisol shuts down all the 'non essential stuff' and gets us thinking straight from our most primal brain - the bit concerned with survival. It tenses your muscles, shortens your breathing, narrows your focus. Really handy for fighting off a mugger, or running from a Sabre Toothed Tiger,  bloody useless for 95% of the things human beings are expected to do today. Creativity? Expression? Innovation? Nope. Not with Cortisol running the show. Oh, and you may as well give yourself a frontal lobotomy - that's how much Cortisol impairs your cognitive ability. That's why we made silly mistakes in the run through. Its also why overworked, angry, or fearful doctors make significantly more mistakes than those who don't have systems pumped full of Cortisol.

So the old guard leadership tricks don't work when you need people to be creative, innovative, solve problems, be brave. In the studio, this translates to an inability to 'be sexy' if we are dancing to a commentary of criticism - whether that's out loud from a well meaning teacher, or in our own heads. At work, it means that leadership behaviour that perpetuates fear, anger, shame or uncertainty, means you can wave goodbye to creativity, innovation, proactivity and problem solving. Charisma and confidence? They won't get a look in. You can't direct the bits of your brain related to that good stuff. You don't access those bits via fear/anger/shame/sadness/disgust. In fact, you shut them off.

I know Alex Ferguson built a career on this schtick but honestly, it's b*******. You can get people to perform tasks using fear, shame, anger. You can get them to do stuff right. But if you want them to be consistent, to be creative, to innovate, to think for themselves, to be free? You need a different brain pattern entirely, a totally different set of chemicals. How? I think that's a whole other post...