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Teach Like George Balanchine
Nearly 40 years ago, the world lost one of the premier choreographers in ballet. Co-founder of the New York City Ballet and its Artistic Director for more than three decades, George Balanchine left his mark on ballet and guided countless dance instructors on how to teach precision. Leaders and teachers in all fields can stand to be reminded of how Balanchine turned potential into stardom.
George Balanchine was a rare teacher. One who transformed American ballet. Balanchine certainly pushed dancers to their limit. But, he did this not by telling, cajoling, or scolding them. Instead, he showed them.
In Balanchine’s philosophy of movement, dancers were to float above the dance floor. He wanted dancers to feel as if there was nothing more than a piece of onion skin between the heel and the floor. He showed them by demonstrating exactly what he meant.
Talented people don’t like to be told what to do. They much prefer to be shown. However, Balanchine understood that demonstration, though superior to telling, often fell short in teaching others.
Simply performing a task and teaching that task through demonstration was different for Balanchine. He would show dancers through demonstration, ask them to try it, and then show them again. This repetitive show, observe, and show created some of the best ballet dancers the world has ever seen.
This approach is equally powerful for leaders. When leading by example, as many of the best leaders do, it is not enough to simply demonstrate the steps critical to achieve competence. We have to ask others to show us how they will achieve the same outcomes.
Leading by example falls short when we don’t ask others to try the strategies and actions we personify. Leaders who show and then ask others to demonstrate what they have observed develop talent more aggressively. Show, observe, show is how people learn best.