Many leaders find themselves getting stuck in the weeds: focusing on executing projects, handling tasks themselves, or answering client requests. Sometimes, in quick and efficient ways, they can toggle between this close-up tactical view and the wider lens that is required for keeping teams aligned and ensuring priorities are in order. But there are other times when leaders become keenly aware that they have been mired in the minutiae too long and must purposefully step back. It is important for leaders to both recognize when to do so and be equipped in practical ways to realign priorities.
The balcony-versus-the-dance-floor view of leadership, made popular by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, is a metaphor we teach at leadership programs here at Insight Experience. This framework juxtaposes the close-up view of the dance floor with the widened lens of the balcony. (In the video below, consultant and faciltiator Leah Carey explains the balcony metaphor.) Though it varies by industry and organizational culture, nearly everyone spends some time on the dance floor. Leaders roll up their sleeves to bring projects to a close, solve problems, and develop their teams in hands-on ways.
But the dance floor is sometimes too intimate for a proper perspective: You are too close for effective decision-making. Effective leadership requires a frequent move to the balcony to observe the dance happening below. John le Carré, espionage novelist and former British spy, wrote: “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.” Indeed.
Here are some clues that it’s time to get out from behind the desk and up on the balcony:
- It’s the middle of the quarter and/or year. Many leaders set goals and priorities at only the beginning of the year or beginning of the quarter. If it’s been more than six weeks since you have evaluated your goals and measured your progress against them, it’s time to step back and align priorities.
- You seek opportunities for agility. If the world throws you for a loop, it's often reassuring to be reminded of the goals that drive your work. Stepping back for a broader perspective of the organization as a whole can remind you of strategic goals you may have lost sight of. Communicating those overarching goals with your team can provide much-needed alignment and can help everyone adapt to tough times with ease and agility.
- You want to innovate. If you as a leader have identified areas in which innovation is needed, stepping back to see the big picture can help you assess overall strategic direction and then set clear goals and objectives to drive innovation efforts. Leaders who have a balcony view are better positioned to identify trends, market opportunities, and potential disruptions and can better analyze the competitive landscape. They can examine past attempts to innovate, identify the lessons learned from those endeavors, and apply those insights to the future.
- Work and life feel out of balance. Work should be something humans do to enhance their life, provide for themselves and their family, and contribute to the world. It might be time to step back and look at priorities if you are filled with anxiety, your home life is struggling, or you have lost the meaning in your work. An alignment of priorities can help resolve some discomfort.
Once you realize it’s time to realign priorities, take steps on an individual level to reorient yourself. Here are a few ideas, ones that have been remarkably useful for me:
- Take a break. I recently became a mother, a transformative event that required me to pull back from work for some time. During my parental leave, I considered the ways in which my career is meaningful and the lasting impact my work will have on my family and the world. I returned from my leave with a clearer vision for my work and well-aligned priorities. Though this break from work was necessary due to circumstance, I learned the value of this type of thinking and am committed to doing it more frequently.
- Do activities you love. During my time away from work (when I wasn’t adjusting to the many demands of motherhood), I mostly baked and walked, two restorative activities for me. I also practiced meditation and prayer, listened to podcasts, and played cards with my husband. Moving my body, getting my hands sticky, and applying my mind to other topics helped refresh me and spark new ideas. Sometimes it feels like we have way too much going on to take a step back, but moving our minds away from the daily grind will ultimately give us the energy to be incredibly productive.
- Volunteer. Spending time with an organization or doing an activity that is unrelated to our day jobs can be therapeutic and provide a fresh perspective. Service through time and talent can give your priorities new life. Getting out from behind the desk to wash dogs at the local shelter, coach your kid’s soccer team, or offer career advice to college kids can lead to new connections and ideas that the view of your computer screen never could. Often an act of service will provide additional clarity on why we do the work we do, which is crucial framing for properly aligned priorities.
After you have identified the need for a fresh lens and gathered new perspectives for yourself, it’s time to climb the stairs and get on the balcony. These are some creative and practical ways to do so.
- Take stock. Look objectively at your team, your projects, and yourself.
- Is your team performing up to standard? Do they need upskilling or development? How are things at home for them? (If you don’t know, ask!)
- Are your projects aligned with the goals you set for yourself and the business? Are you doing what you said you would do this quarter or this year to get where your five-year vision is targeted?
- Do you need personal or leadership development? In what areas? How do you know?
- Identify recurring issues. Recurring people or process issues are a flashing neon sign that something needs to change. Studying patterns can help us find root causes. Once unearthed, we can prioritize solving for those issues, which reduces the whack-a-mole way of solving problems that we sometimes play at work.
- Seek feedback. Request feedback from your team, customers, and stakeholders. This can happen via regular meetings, surveys, or even informal conversations. If you listen to different perspectives, you can gain valuable insights and can identify blind spots where innovation might be needed.
- Set aside time. Schedule time to regularly seek the broader perspective the balcony view provides. This could involve blocking off specific hours in your day; days in your week; or even a team retreat that allows for reflecting on the strategic direction of the business and initiatives for innovation. (Nothing says team-building quite like dedicated time for a retreat, which can boost employee morale and pride.)
- Actively seek external perspectives. Industry conferences, networking events, and business communities in which you can exchange ideas with other leaders: These are all good for gaining insights into emerging trends and best practices.
Bethany primarily works on simulation design and facilitates the Leadership Foundations program. She is also a project manager and contributor to the Insight Experience blog. She is passionate about finding the potential in people and processes and developing that potential for remarkable results.