Executives often speak of how challenging it is to navigate a volatile, uncertain, and complex business environment. At the ready, management gurus counsel a more collaborative, agile style of leadership. Market success calls for connecting and innovating, not command-and-control. The winning formula: attract talent, empower high-functioning teams, and swap smart machines for labor wherever possible. An unforgiving market demands flexibility and flawless execution.
A different yet strangely similar message comes from another quarter: environmentalists say a world of extreme weather, rising ocean waters, and less fresh water will require leaders and followers alike to become more adaptive and resilient, to pivot toward post-carbon technologies and adopt more sustainable livelihoods. As Bill McKibben observes, "The changes to our lives will be ongoing and large and will require uncommon nimbleness, physically and psychologically."
Unfortunately, technology-centered automation not only renders many jobs redundant but also dumbs down remaining workers. Consider the fate of pilots. Air travel has never been safer, and we have computerization to thank for that. Yet commercial pilots, who touch the controls for only a few minutes at take-off and landing, now function as computer operators within high-tech glass cockpits. They struggle to gain flying experience and maintain the skill, expertise, quick reflexes, and habits of attentiveness required when, as sometimes happens, the auto-pilot glitches and the plane and its passengers are back in their hands. Sophisticated simulation training only goes so far. At least one veteran pilot has stated flatly, “We’re forgetting how to fly.”
According to Nicholas Carr, the shadow side of auto-pilot is emblematic of a larger, worrisome trend as automation accelerates: “The mounting evidence of an erosion of skills, a dulling of perceptions, and a slowing of reactions should give us all pause. As we begin to live our lives inside glass cockpits, we seem fated to discover what pilots already know: a glass cockpit can also be a glass cage.” Carr’s allusion to Weber lends weight to the increasingly common sentiment that we are fated to living in a Jetsonian world. On this view, Google and Big Auto soon will create a world of self-driving cars, and only fools and the Amish would reject the safety and freedom to do other things when mobile. Yet just when the uncommon nimbleness and other capabilities required for a deft handling of the increasingly severe conditions we’re fast flying toward are needed most, we are counseled to kick back for a Cadillac ride and let the learning algorithms take over. How long will workers be taken for a ride?
Beyond its intrinsic delights, tango may be viewed as a training ground for life in a risky, runaway world. Dance partners risk an adventure, stepping together again and again into new territory, exploring the adjacent possible through a movement-making at once composed and untamed.
And what of the misstep or stumble? Simple miscommunication, an unclear signal from the lead, a rush into the next step by a nervous and inexperienced follower, poor technique—these common failures among the tango faithful turn a smooth synchrony into an unwelcome, jarring juxtaposition registered immediately as heaviness and tension in the dance. Tango etiquette is clear about these inevitable falls from grace: the lead takes responsibility—always—and repairs the situation immediately by adjusting as necessary and leading the pair back into the lightness and ease. What makes this practice of forgiveness challenging is the uncommon nimbleness of mind required: the lead has to re-frame the situation on the fly and act with precision and timeliness, lest the dance drag or come to a crashing halt. There is no auto-pilot in tango, only grace under pressure.