A View From the Balcony

(Originally published on LinkedIn.)

In their book Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, Martin Linsky and Ronald A. Heifetz explain how leaders can easily fall into the trap of being so close to the work that they fail to see the bigger picture. It’s so easy to get caught up in all of the details — meetings with parents, classroom walkthroughs, discipline, leadership team meetings, off-campus meetings, etc. — that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Their solution for overcoming this pitfall is to step away from “the dance floor” and to place one’s self on “the balcony.”

The balcony metaphor captures this idea. Let’s say you are dancing in a big ballroom with a balcony up above. A band plays and people swirl all around you to the music, filling up your view. Most of your attention focuses on your dance partner, and you reserve whatever is left to make sure that you don’t collide with dancers close by. You let yourself get carried away by the music, your partner, and the moment. When someone later asks you about the dance, you exclaim, “The band played great, and the place surged with dancers.”

But if you had gone up to the balcony and looked down on the dance floor, you might have seen a very different picture. You would have noticed all sorts of patterns. For example, you might have observed that when slow music payed, only some people danced; when the tempo increased, others stepped onto the floor; and some people never seemed to dance at all. Indeed, the dancers all clustered at one end f the floor, as far away from the band as possible. On returning home, you might have reported that participation was sporadic, the band played too loud, and you only danced to fast music.

Achieving a balcony perspective means taking yourself out of the dance, in your mind, even if only for a moment. The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray. Otherwise, you are likely to misperceive the situation and make the wrong diagnosis, leading you to misguided decisions about whether and how to intervene.

The authors go on to stress that we must find a balance between being an observer and being a participant — and that in itself becomes a “dance” where we move between the two roles fluidly in order to at once see the big picture of the whole system while also making decisions and plans that generate effective changes within the system.

This reminds me of a technique that I learned in art school that I later used with my own students when I started teaching. Artists spend a great deal of their time with their nose in the painting — so close to the work that they must make the effort to step away and look at the whole picture. My professors (and I, in my own classroom) frequently asked students to stop drawing/painting/sculpting and to move to the other side of the room to look at the work from a distance or a different perspective. The purpose of this was to allow the student/artist time and space to see the whole work — to look for the patterns, to assess the balance and harmony of the whole piece. The technique is very effective. I’ve also found it helpful when doing other kinds of projects — painting rooms in my home, decorating, etc. — and it’s essentially the same thing as viewing “from the balcony.”

Imagine your school or district from “the balcony”…

What patterns do you see?

How might this view allow you to rethink solutions to the challenges you are facing in your school or district?

How might you help other members of your leadership or administration team — as well as members of your faculty or other staff — see the school, district, or department from the balcony?

How might you also guide your team to apply what they’ve learned “from the balcony” to affect change when they return “to the dance floor”?