7 Lessons the Tango Teaches About Being a Great Follower

Tango! At Cafe Tortoni in ArgentinaLet’s face it, when you live, work, write and dream leadership it can be very difficult to be a great follower. But even those of us who have a passion for leadership (I believe that includes all of you, my dear readers!) know there are times when we are simply meant to follow.

Enter the Tango. And the Rumba, Salsa, Hustle, Waltz and Fox Trot. Up until a few weeks ago my only exposure to them had been the Mario Lopez season of Dancing With the Stars. But, having spent the better part of my childhood and High School years dancing and performing on football fields and basketball courts, I decided it was time to bring dance back into my life.

I feel like my soul has begun to fly. Truly.

But you want to know the first thing I told my amazing instructor, Joel (who is half Puerto Rican and looks a bit like Mario Lopez)? “You have to teach me to be a great follower, because my inner self always wants to lead.” His response? “You asked for it.”

Hence, the 7 things the Tango, and Joel, have taught me about being a great follower:

1. You have to trust

Sometimes as leaders we take this for granted. We assume because of our titles or our experience or even our vision people will naturally follow us. But that’s not the case. They have to trust that we have their best interest at heart as we lead them down the path we’ve laid out. Just as I have to completely trust Joel not to dance me into a pole, a wall, or another dancer, our followers need to trust that we genuinely want them to be successful.

This goes back to my message on the power of authenticity. Trust comes when we honor who we are in every moment and allow our followers to see this.

2. You have to keep the leader in front of you at all times

This might seem obvious, but how often do we get so engrossed in what we’re doing and our own personal goals that we completely lose sight of the leader and where they’re headed? This is dangerous for followers and I guarantee you it happens relentlessly in corporate America.

The more I keep Joel squarely in front of me and look directly at him instead of at my feet, his feet, or in the mirror, the better I dance.

3. You need the right distance between you and the leader

This has probably been the most important lesson for me so far: the more I push away from Joel and keep the right distance, the easier it is for me to move and to follow him. Yes, ladies, it’s a bit counter-intuitive to push the man away from us, but as followers it speaks to our desire to have the space we need to do our jobs. Most successful executives I work with appreciate direction, but they want room to move in their own way. The right amount of distance ensures more empowerment by the leader to the follower, and a more successful outcome as a team. 

4. Energy is everything

If you want to be a great follower you have to have to match the energy and passion exuded by the leader in your own role. Have you ever tried to Salsa with someone who is half Puerto Rican? Enough said.

5. Listening is critical

Some leaders are great at telling you exactly what they need from you. Some are a bit more subtle. Sometimes that’s because they want to give you space and sometimes it’s simply because they don’t realize you need more direction. As the follower it’s your responsibility to make sure the leader understands when you need more direction and to listen closely to every cue they give.

Of course, I have the luxury of asking Joel to show me a dance step ten times if need be.  But once the music starts I’m learning to pay close attention, and I’m starting to understand how – and when – he is giving me cues as to where he is headed so I can follow.

6. Attitude sets you apart

Look at every successful leader in your organization and I can almost guarantee it is their attitude that sets them apart from their peers. The right attitude is the icing on the cake that entices the leader to want to work with you. When you “bring it” you set yourself up for success, even when you make missteps along the way.

In the Tango that attitude is, “I love to hate you!” with an air of disdain. I haven’t quite mastered this yet because I’m suppressing perpetual inner giggling.

7. Be open to the adventure

To be a brilliant follower you have to be open to the adventure upon which the leader is taking you, and you sometimes need to be willing to try new things. You may even need to get out of your comfort zone (yes, I’m talking to you, fellow introverts!). But if you’re not fully open, you won’t experience all the joys of the journey.

So, after just two lessons I’m hooked on following and exuberant about having dance back in my life. You won’t find me on Dancing With the Stars anytime soon, but if you’re watching any of my lessons you’ll find me smiling like crazy and as happy as can be about this exciting new adventure.

What do you think makes a great follower?


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Photo of Tango! at Cafe Tortoni in Argentina by Armando Maynez.


  1. Such an important point and a great list. I often say that being able to follow effectively is a leadership development opportunity. Tango vividly illustrates the reciprocity model. If the follower works well with the leader it forces the leader to lead well and act responsibly.
    Alan Kay´s last blog post ..Every case is different. Every solution is unique.

    • Thank you, Alan! I appreciate your great point that this relationship is reciprocal, and the leader has significant responsibility as well. I am always grateful when you add your perspective here; thank you so much!

  2. Thanks so much for this Lisa!

    I forwarded your post to my Director first thing this morning, with kudos to her for excelling in all 7 steps.

    It was a platform for me to jump from in recognizing her talent, strength and leadership.

    what an awesome way for us both to start the day!
    erin´s last blog post ..Opportunities for a Better Life for Everyone

    • Erin, what a tremendous gift you gave her by such thoughtful recognition! Honored to know I could be part of it in a very small way. Wishing you both all the best of success!

  3. Daniel Ross says:

    I always think of dance as a metaphor for living. This was the best description of following I have ever seen. Dan

  4. This post was one of those that came home to me.

    I always struggled to follow when I learned Ball Room dancing in school; and the Tango was especially difficult for me. Earlier at age 4 or so I was placed in a very prestigious “Ballet School” but did not last too long as I was prone to do the opposite; which was what the teacher told my Mother even though I insisted I WAS following instructions. Years later my Mother confessed that she thought I was dyslectic and had difficulty following mirror image. I suspect this was the same with the Ballroom dancing classes in School. Follow to me was interpreted as quite the opposite. You move your left foot back and mirror image I move my right foot back…..well no taking two to Tango here.

    The point is with following or having good followers you need to be on the same page, communicating in the same language, in fact inhabiting the same universe. That’s what I learned from the Tango:-)

    Thank you as always, Lisa for your insights.
    CASUDI´s last blog post ..12 MOST engaging reasons why brands need to embrace social media now

    • Caroline, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you sharing your own experience here! I love how you summed it up – not just being on the same page but communicating in the same language and inhabiting the same universe. Gorgeous insights! I think if you really are in love when doing the Tango, you probably feel all of that and more… Thank you again and so glad this hit home!

  5. I like this a lot. Thank you, Lisa!

    Trust is definitely number 1. There’s also a need to say to the leader “I’m willing to be led.” (Perhaps this is part of what you had in mind with “keep the leader in front of you.”) I can say these words verbally, but the message is most effective when I convey it through listening, through cooperating, sometimes through deferring to his or her judgment.

    Thanks again for these great insights, and I hope that you’ll continue to enjoy your dance lessons.

    • You’re welcome, Larry and I absolutely will! I’m sure I’ll continue to write about them as they teach me more and more each time. And thank you for sharing that great point for those of us who default to leader: sometimes we have to say out loud, “I’m willing to be led.” Thank you, Larry!

  6. Hi Lisa,

    I’m very happy to note that dance is back in your life & that your soul has begun to fly !
    If you let your inner self lead, result is bound to be peace, harmony & happiness.
    I liked the way you have articulated about 7 things you have learnt.

    Wishing you the very best in life



  1. […] my renewed immersion in dance is not only lifting my soul, it’s helping me better understand the work needed to be a great follower. I am incredibly fortunate to have an instructor who not only has a genuine understanding of the […]

  2. […] personal journey that took me to the ballroom dance floor, I wrote a blog post entitled, “7 Lessons the Tango Teaches About Being a Great Follower.” For, as much as I love to dance, I have a genuine desire to be an exceptional follower. And […]

  3. […] Petrilli (@LisaPetrilli) has written a great post titled 7 Lessons the Tango Teaches About Being a Great Follower.  The post comes from her own lessons dancing and how she’s learning to enjoy being a […]

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