Invitational mastery over exclusionary excellence

Image by  

I entered our embrace as I had countless others — with calm, grace, and confidence. In a heartbeat’s moment, our breath synced. Our eyes closed. The music washed over our unified body and we began to dance. Unfettered connection speaks volumes.

So what does it say?

For eight years, I danced, taught, and organized Argentine tango semi-professionally. I studied with masters around the world and learned many lessons. The most powerful was how to lead from a space of invitational mastery.

To lead from a place of leadership that inspires.

Since then, I’ve run venture-backed businesses and worked with Department of Defense contractors. I’ve produced feature-length circuses and built large-scale art installations. I graduated as a Sloan Fellow with a Masters in Management Science from Stanford Graduate School of Business. At every step, I thought about that tango embrace.

In my professional and creative pursuits, I work with exceptional individuals across artistic, academic, technical, and business traditions. I marvel at the many expressions of mastery along a simple spectrum: inclusionary to exclusionary.

Exclusionary excellence is easy to recognize as a felt sense that the "excellent individual" is so good that you could never meet them on their level. That's not necessarily an expression of ill will or malice. How these masters express excellence reminds you of the gap between their skill and your own.

Inclusionary mastery is invitational as a felt sense of feeling inspired to play along, plus a gentle, almost unnoticeable, updraft on one's capacity. If you usually sit still at a concert, perhaps you find yourself drumming new and unexpected (to you) rhythms. If you usually hold back in meetings, perhaps you find yourself contributing new and unexpected (to you) insights. If you usually step on toes, perhaps you find yourself dancing with new and unexpected (to you) elegance. Inclusionary masters know this isn’t unexpected at all.

Where exclusionary excellence reminds you of the gap, invitational mastery chuckles at the concept of a gap between you and me. Inclusionary mastery prompts an uplifting baseline of non-judgment and an invitation to try that gently yet notably levels up others.

Mastery is hard to reach, and I bow to those who choose the path of excellence in any tradition. Inclusion is another layer to master on top of the skills or crafts themselves. And it’s not easy.

When I was dancing tango, certain partners inspired movements and grace that I didn’t even know I was capable of. Other partners lorded their skills over me in a way that contracted my available field of possibility. Both impressed me in some capacity, but I only wanted to keep dancing with one.

My experience profoundly impacted my understanding of leadership. Like Adam Grant’s “wise givers,” leaders who practice invitational excellence inspire and cultivate excellence in many more of their team members. Those teams are more productive and fun because everyone uplifts and encourages each other. Invitational mastery invites more mastery.

Much like the cabaceo invitation of Argentine tango, there is an art to the invitation of mastery itself. Inspired by Atul Gawande’s writing on masterful surgeons, I wrote my own Code of Excellence. Clear is kind, as Brene Brown says. Words are powerful, and the most power comes from the practice of non-judgmental invitation to step up and level up.

I choose the embrace of invitational mastery.

Shall we dance?

Like what you see? Join my Thriving Thursdays newsletter

Every week you'll receive fascinating finds and synthesized sense making about the science, business, technology, and spirituality of Thriving.