I must give all the credit for this short piece to Dr. Alexander Horniman, who teaches ethics, strategy and leadership at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

Many years ago — so many, in fact, that he may not even remember the event or the topic — Dr. Horniman gave a presentation to hundreds attending a conference. The subject was how to develop future leaders. In the midst of his presentation, Dr. Horniman told a story. I have remembered that story all these years and repeat it here, with Dr. Horniman’s kind permission.

The Dance of the Numbers

Picture a dance hall. Probably the easiest (and perhaps, alas, most painful) is to picture your senior prom.

The dance hall has a door. It has four walls. It has a space reserved for the band. And (of course) it has a dance floor. Arranged in various places are numbers, one through five. Here is an illustration:

 

 

Oh, those poor Ones. They’re either perceptive enough to know they can’t possibly dance, or they just don’t care for the dance at all. They’re clustered outside the building, laughing and joking among themselves. The dance means nothing to them. They may have tried and failed miserably. Or they may be so disengaged, they would never think to put in the effort.

Then there are the Twos. Not much better than Ones, they’re peering through the door, or they’ve barely stepped inside. They know there’s a dance going on, and they may even have some interest in it. But they are so shy, they won’t even venture to more away from the door. They can hear the music, may even be able to tap to the beat. But that’s about it.

Inside the hall, there are Threes, Fours and Fives. The most spectacular are the Fives. These are the ace dancers of the day. They know all the latest moves, they can even invent some of their own, and they truly set the place on fire. They’re those for whom we clear a space, so we can applaud while they do their thing. They’re the best, they know they’re the best, and they exude confidence fueled by our adulation.

There are quite a few Fours on the floor as well. These folks can dance well. They study those Fives, knowing that with the right amount of work they can be the superstars one day. They share the floor, shine almost as brightly as the Fives, but always remember to yield to the Fives when it’s the right thing to do.

And finally, there are the Threes. There are more Threes than any other Number on the floor. But those Threes are all arranged around the walls of the dance floor. They hear the beat, they can tap to the beat. They know they can dance. They might not dance as well as the Fours, certainly not as well as the Fives, but with practice they know they can do it. They study those Fours and Fives, not only to learn the moves, but also to pick up those confidence cues so necessary to success.

What stops Threes? They’ve never been invited to dance.

Still, they’re dancing in place, waiting for a Four or a Five to stretch out a hand. Waiting for encouragement. Some Threes will manage to move onto the floor on their own, while many others will hold back. Those Threes simply need encouragement, to gain the confidence to do what they already think they can do but have never tried.

Now think of the dance floor as your business, and the Numbers as your employees. When it comes to developing talent and looking for new leaders, where are you expending your energy? Where are you spending your time?

How are you encouraging your Threes?

The essence of leadership is encouragement – and at the heart of encouragement is courage – not only to impart courage to those who are eager to be inspired, but also to have the courage to do so, knowing that those who follow may well surpass those who presently lead.

The essence of leadership is to stretch out that hand, to invite people to the dance. We must demand this of our Fours and our Fives, because they have learned to dance so well.

All too often, we spend most of our time and effort focusing on our Fours. We put together succession plans and special development programs, key assignments, shadowing sessions, tailored leadership sessions — all with the aim of turning those Fours into our future Fives.

But think about this as well. In terms of potential, in terms of room to grow and to improve, there is an incredible opportunity in the population of Threes — those people with talent, ideas, motivation, intelligence, and creativity — who are looking to be invited to the dance. There are so many more of them, and through their sheer numbers they represent significant untapped potential. The encouragement and tools we provide, through our leadership programs and through the mentoring efforts of our Fours and Fives, will provide huge rewards to our organizations – but only if we extend them to our Threes.

What programs are in place for your Threes? What programs can you provide?

By recognizing and tapping into this pool of talent, we can grow our companies. We can develop programs aimed at turning those Threes into Fours. (Some will likely surprise us and leap to Fives.) What we share with our Threes can be the same programs we develop for our Fours, calibrated to the skills and experience of the Threes — key assignments, shadowing activities, leadership sessions, and so forth.

If we win the hearts and minds of our Threes, we win for our organization.

So, tap into that powerful pool of potential. Invite your Threes to the dance. And watch the dance hall of your business rock and roll.

Thanks, Dr. Horniman, for such a great story — one of many you’ve no doubt used, inspiring countless students on their career journeys. You instructed us with a warm blend of thoughtfulness, business acumen, and focus on ethics that made this story unforgettable.