I am returning in this post to the man/woman leadership/submission debate. I spoke about it a good deal in both of my books, and some of my blogs from years ago (mostly on my old blog which is long since deactivated.) I haven’t re-visited that dynamic in a while. There are a lot of topics like that which I used to speak and write about constantly in my early twenties, that I simply don’t put much emphasis on anymore, e.g. modesty, Theology of the Body, the Way of the Warrior, to name a few. The reason I don’t get into them much these days is not because I think they are no longer important, but because I spent years thinking them through from every angle I could find, and came to a pretty good working understanding of them. Now I live based on that understanding, and when I come up with something new I revise it, but most of my thinking is devoted to other things.
The reason I am returning to this topic for one post is because I ran across a comment on another blog to the effect that one of the problems faced by Catholic men in seeking out wives was the need to find “faithful and submissive” women. I found it a touch irritating, but mostly amusing. It’s the sort of thing you would expect from someone who simply did not understand the whole leadership dynamic. It reminded me of grumpy old men at a swing dance, and a particular story involving a very dear friend of mine:
I enjoy swing dancing from time to time. I am not particularly good at it, mostly because it isn’t something people do very often these days, and so I haven’t had much practice, but it is fun when I do get the chance. Last September I was on leave back on the East Coast and I did go swing dancing with a group of friends. One of those friends is a lovely young lady who works at a school for special needs children. She is black, bubbly, sassy, and very often dressed in purple, and never afraid to speak her mind. During the evening she was dancing with one of the regulars, a slightly older gentleman, who apparently was quite skillful and knew a lot of moves, but apparently was not used to dancing with someone with a personality because, not thirty seconds into the dance, he told her, “Look, I can tell you are a feisty one, but if you want to swing dance you need to learn to follow.”
To which my friend shot back, “Well, maybe you should learn to lead with some authority!” Okay, so sometimes she gets more than a little sassy.
Every woman I have ever danced with (not a great number, I could probably count them without taking more than one shoe off) has been a different dancer. This particular friend had a very physical, almost athletic style of dancing. I never had a problem getting her to follow my lead, but it had to be a very firm lead. She didn’t like that finger-tips only grip, she liked a firm, solid grip, so that she could spin out and away as fast and as hard as she liked, confident that I would not lose her hand and let her go flying across the room (I don’t know what that move is called. I call it the “Yo-yo.”) When she spun back in she liked to know that I was going to catch her, not just get out of the way. She would dip or jump without fear, as long as she could feel that I had a solid hold and wasn’t going to drop her on her head.
Other dancers, some of my cousins, for instance, would have been scared away by such “roughness.” One cousin in particular prefers to have just the lightest grip possible, just thumb and forefinger on her palm. She doesn’t like being dragged through the moves, or being tossed around the ballroom. The slightest movement of my hand was enough to signal to her what we were doing, and then she would flow through it. I still had to lead with decision, because changing your mind in the middle of a move is just awkward for everyone involved, but there was no place for the firmness that my other friend enjoyed.
Dancing at my brother’s wedding recently I came across another problem I had never seen before. I learned to dance in South Carolina and Virginia, and my brother (not the getting-married one, a different one) and his friends had learned to dance in the Northeast. Different styles of swing, different moves, and slightly different leads, not to mention vastly different experience levels, meant that often it was like speaking a different language.
In all of these different situations I had the same job. If you are going to swing dance, as a guy, you have to learn how to lead. You can fudge it for a bit, and most girls are not going to storm off in a huff, but if you want to have more than one dance per girl, you have to learn to lead. This is not simply a matter of learning the steps and the moves. You can get through most songs with a handful of moves and some confidence. You don’t even need real confidence. Fake confidence will do the trick as often as not, as long as the girl has a sense of humor. What you absolutely must learn is leadership. Moves do not make leadership. The older, extremely experienced dancer who told my friend she needed to learn how to follow knew some moves. His red paisley spats probably knew more moves than I ever will, but that did not enable him. It actually hindered him from enjoying a dance with a great lady. He knew how things were supposed to go, and was not prepared to listen to her. She was doing it wrong, and he felt he had to educate her. She declined to be educated by him and that was that.
What he could have done had he perhaps known less about dancing and more about dancing with people, was listen to her. Feel her out. Get to know her style, figure out how she liked to be led, what she was comfortable with, and adapt himself to her preferences. Perhaps be willing to accept a dance that was not as artistic as he was used to, a little imperfection of style, or even a lot of imperfection and roughness, in the interests of sharing a dance with her. I guarantee if he had stepped up his game and tried to match her preferences, he would have found her making equal efforts to adapt to him. Perhaps it would have been worse dancing, but it would have been better leadership.
Sure, that one dance isn’t going to be as smooth and artsy as it could be if it were someone whose style perfectly matched his, or if he had danced with her regularly for a year or two and they had gotten used to each other. Searching out that “perfect” human relationship too often devolves into a single-minded, ruthless pursuit of one person’s private idea of what perfection ought to be, which is always flawed. Perfection is impossible in this life, and even harmony is achieved slowly and patiently, by listening far more than by speaking. That is real leadership.