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Getting Off the Dance Floor, and On the Balcony

Managers and leaders have to take themselves out of the fray to understand what's really going on.

Too many meetings; too much information; caught in the "bubble" unable to focus on a few priorities. These frustrations are common to leaders at all government levels. What to do?

In their fine book, "Leadership on the Line," authors Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky offer a practical and wise solution: get off the dance floor (daily operations), and up on the "balcony." Managers and leaders have to take themselves out of the fray to understand what's really going on. You can't affect action up on the balcony; to have an impact, you must return to the dance floor. But the perspective is clearest on the balcony; that's where an assessment can best be done. The authors suggest that managers and leaders continually move back and forth between the dance floor and balcony.

How do busy managers and leaders get up on the balcony?

There are many ways to do this; it depends on one's personal and management style, on the organization and its culture, on one's boss. Here is a starter list.

· Take some quiet time. I once interviewed former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles and learned that he started most days with two hours of quiet, during which he would be interrupted only if his wife called or an emergency was occurring. "With all of the events and chaos going on some days, you can't see the big picture," he reflected. "Early on I decided that I needed to guard some time for thought and reflection, and this is the only way I can do it."

· Form a "kitchen cabinet." The higher up you are in an organization, the more difficult it can be to get truly candid advice. But all leaders and managers need to have a few people who will look them in the eye and offer their perspective. It shouldn't be a large group, but the individuals need to have good judgment, knowledge of the organization and its environment, self confidence. Most importantly, you need to trust that their advice will be given with no expectation of receiving anything in return.

· Listen to your boss, and to his/her boss. The people you report to are responsible for seeing a larger picture than you manage. They often hear from people you don't meet, and feel pressures from people you don't know. Your bosses may have trouble getting up on the balcony themselves, but at least they start from a different vantage point, and it's always in your interest to understand their perspective.

· Create a few emissaries. When Franklin Roosevelt was president, he often sent his wife Eleanor on trips around the country, meeting with people who were affected by the government's programs. FDR couldn't travel easily because of his polio, so Eleanor was his "eyes and ears," as he put it. She would tell him what different groups were saying, and she could sense their greatest hopes and deepest fears. Her trips were invaluable in helping her husband learn how people were responding to his efforts.

· Get underneath the specific activities, and look for patterns and causes. Getting up on the balcony requires mental discipline. When confronted with a particular challenge it's important to get underneath the details and look for causes and patterns. This is the difference between watching a company's stock go up and down daily, and asking more fundamental questions about the company's products, the loyalty of its customers, its ability to respond to a changing environment, etc.

For example, think about the person in your office who writes poorly. What do you do? If you correct his mistakes, you're responding to specific events; you won't get onto the balcony that way (but you may ensure that he'll continue to make mistakes!). Step up on the balcony: Is there a pattern to his mistakes? Does he make them when under pressure? On certain kinds of assignments? And think about causes. Might he be making mistakes because he assumes that you'll correct his work no matter how hard he tries? Is he simply a poor writer? There are ways of dealing with poor writers, but they won't be found on the dance floor, correcting each paper he writes.

Getting up on the balcony takes discipline. The operational pressures all point you back to the dance floor. And it takes time. But, as some people in the U.S. military point out, "we never have time to do it right in the first instance, but we always find time to get it right the second time!" Organizational life looks different up on the balcony; that's why we need to go there.

A management consultant, educator and author
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