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Dancing Guy doesn’t teach good leadership lessons

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Music and creativity entrepreneur Derek Sivers has a popular TED Talk titled “Leadership Lessons From Dancing Guy.” Here’s the video and transcript of his three-minute talk.

Unfortunately, at least through my eyes as a 19-year community organizer and nine-year high-school teacher, Dancing Guy models many poor leadership traits.

A leader who shares the values of democracy, justice and diversity (among other things) and is serious about building long-lasting change — change that will not depend on him — does not begin by coming up with an idea and acting on it alone.

Instead, the democratic leader begins by leading with his ears, asking people what they see that needs to be done. After some idea testing, he gets reactions from others so that the idea can be adapted in minor or major ways and ownership becomes shared.

Yes, Dancing Guy can get people dancing at a concert for a short time. But those dancers will forget about him in a few hours. An inspirational speaker can get people jazzed up for an hour or so in the wake of a powerful presentation. A teacher can dress up in a costume and put on a performance for one class period — or be the constantly entertaining “sage on stage” — and perhaps make the learning a little bit stickier.

But it’s the trust built through relationships, the ownership built through listening and buy-in, the supportive environment resulting from trust and ownership, and the mutual accountability that encourage people to take risks and create a culture of learning, challenge and change.

I do want to see leaders rise up — lots and lots of them. I want as many people as possible — students and others — to develop the leadership skills of listening, risk taking, holding others accountable and being willing to be held accountable. These are leaders who will develop other leaders, not only followers and not only for a short run.

That’s what I want in my classroom, and that’s what I think needs to be present in any kind of organization that supports the kind of values I believe in and in any kind of organization that wants to make serious change.

By using Dancing Guy as a leadership model, we run the risk of getting caught up in a “Field of Dreams” mentality: “If you build it, he will come.” Yes, some people will come. The problem is that you’ll get people who want to come, not people you need to come.

If you’re organizing for social change, this means you might get volunteers who have time on their hands because they’re “free agents.” They might not have many connections to other people or institutions. But you won’t get many folks with significant leadership potential — influencers with credibility and a following — because they’re busy already, and they’ve seen plenty of people with great ideas come and go over the years.

If you’re a teacher, this means you’ll get many of the most motivated students — quite a few who are “teacher-proof” and will learn no matter who is up in front of the classroom. But you won’t get students you need to get — the ones facing multiple challenges and who also might have exceptional leadership potential. You won’t get John, a ninth-grader who has never read a complete book or written an essay. You won’t get Karen, a 10th-grader who is still learning the multiplication table.

I was able to get John and Karen by listening, building a relationship, learning their self-interests, making reciprocal agreements and encouraging their leadership skills so they could help others as well as themselves.

The Dancing Guy and “Field of Dreams” mentalities can lead to believing that tools and strategies such as the Khan Academy, great software and charter schools are the cure-all for any or all educational ills. But those tools and strategies, again, appeal to and draw in the most motivated learners, not the ones most in need, or even the ones with the most leadership potential.

The Dancing Guy way can be easier and, depending on how you define “success,” might even have a greater chance of being successful. There’s a Pickles comic strip that illustrates this point. In it, a grandson asks whether his grandfather can skip a rock on water. The grandfather replies that he can skip a rock 23 times. The impressed grandson asks whether he can do it again immediately. No, the grandfather says, he can do it only on water that’s frozen. Dancing Guy can look awfully good in the short term by working near frozen water — in other words, with people who are the most motivated.

We don’t need a Dancing Guy. We need a Listening Guy. We need a Relational Gal. We need a Curious Guy. We need a person who says, “I’ve got an idea, but I hope you can make it better.” We need good teachers who aren’t out there only doing a high-stepping solo. They’re teaching others to dance — and how to dance together.

Larry Ferlazzo (@Larryferlazzo) is a high-school teacher in Sacramento, Calif. He writes a popular blog for educators and a teacher advice column for Education Week Teacher. He also has authored four books on education.