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What's Ballet Got To Do With Leadership?

Updated: Oct 17, 2022

As some of you may know, I started my career as a professional ballet dancer. I spent years finessing my craft, in a studio, during rehearsal and performing. I was recently asked by someone at one of our networking events what connects all those years of ballet to what I do now working with leaders, teams and organisations. I admit, the answer stumped me for a little while. But then I realised that it all comes back to the 3 Gs:

  • Grunt

  • Grit

  • Grace

GRUNT You can think of grunt as the physical and mental work of dancing. It’s the learning, the study and the heavy lifting (metaphorical and real). For dance this meant learning the positions, or the feet, the steps, the sequencing, the music, and spacial awareness. Becoming aware of how the body works and can be developed to accomplish amazing (sometimes logic defining) things. In leadership, grunt is much the same. It’s the heavy lifting of responsibility. It’s learning about yourself, your team, your strategies and goals. It’s understanding where strengths and weaknesses are, and how to motivate your element of the organisation (yourself and your team) to be better, stronger and more fluid (or agile they say these days). It’s the foundational work that gives you little to no reward–at least not at first. But gives you the strength to begin the real practice of leadership. This is the grunt work of leadership, the heavy lifting, the heavy duty thinking, the heavy responsibility. The heavy work. The foundational work.

GRIT Grit, on the other hand, is the practice of leadership. It’s no surprise that leadership is hard work. It’s putting in the hours. It’s learning on the job. It’s failing (fast) and moving on. It’s being 100% accountable. And it’s practice, Grit is a little bit like holding on (for dear life). If I think back to my years in the studio and on the stage, grit was the process of falling over and getting up again. Grit was doing the same step or routine over and over again until it was right. Until it felt right. It was the process of building muscle memory. We used to have a saying–‘learn 5th to forget it’. 5th position is one way of positioning the feet that any dancer would be able to show you no matter how long they’ve been out of the studio for. We practiced it so frequently because we needed to be able to do it without thinking about it. We needed to be able to ‘forget it’ or stop thinking about it, so that it became a part of who we were, like breathing. And that took grit.

GRACE Finally grace. Grace is the bit that people see. One of the most famous ballets is Swan Lake. Swans are often described as graceful and the dancers in Swan Lake are required to show that same gracefulness in every one of their moves, whether it’s the strongest lift or jump, or the smallest wave of their fingers. But what the audience doesn’t see is what’s gone on behind the scenes, under the surface. They don’t see the sheer muscle strength required to make a jump and land it perfectly. They don’t (often) understand the determination it takes to hold one position and then fall into the next as if it took nothing more than a slight wind to blow the dancer over. Every movement takes hundreds of precise muscle movements and an incredible focus. But because it looks so graceful, sometimes it even looks easy. Grace in leadership is the same way. It looks easy from the outside, but it’s the end result of being supported by incredible foundational work, immense capabilities and skills obtained through years of practice, sweat and even tears. But to the audience (your team) it simply looks like being able to take the high road. Like being able to let the water flow down your back and carry on despite challenges, setbacks or failures. Of course, as the leader you know the truth. But the true benefit of grace is that you feel it’s benefit too, even though you know that it’s the result of all those other elements that came before. Which of the 3 Gs are you working on now? Are you learning the foundations? - Grunt Are you finessing your craft? - Grit Are you role modelling the way? - Grace

Until next time, Eat the Frog, Get the Bird, Be the Worm, and throw in a pirouette to really keep you on your toes.


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