The view from the balcony

Have you ever been to a wedding where the band was crazy good and the dance floor was  electric with dancing? Can you imagine describing that dance floor to someone after the wedding? Perhaps you would say it was packed with people; everyone danced all night; guests didn’t stop dancing; the band was blasting; the energy was palpable. However, if you watched this same dance floor at the same wedding from the balcony overlooking the ballroom, you might see an entirely different picture. Perhaps you would notice that during the fast dances all feet were on the dance floor, but when the slow dances were played, it was mostly couples who danced. Perhaps you would also see that in the beginning of the night of all of the guests made their way to the dance floor, but as the night wore on, some of the more veteran dancers became spectators.

Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky use this metaphor to guide leaders to “get on the balcony”. Leaders who are enmeshed in the day-to-day functioning of their organization can get so caught up in the frenzy that they miss the big-picture patterns that emerge. Conversely, leaders who get too comfortable with the view from the C-suite, may lose track of the complexities of the day-to-day functioning of the organization.

In his book Zoom, Istvan Banyai depicts this concept graphically with no words whatsoever.  The first page of Zoom shows a vivid red shape with jagged points across the top. Upon turning the page, we learn that this shape is not just free-form graphics, but is, in fact, the comb on the top of a rooster’s head.  The next page moves the lens further away and we learn that two children are looking out of a window to the rooster in a courtyard outside.  Turning the page again shows us that the children live on a farm with many buildings and a truck.  Moving still further away we see that the farm is actually a toy that is being played with by a little girl. More page-turning depicts the young boy snoozing in a chair beside a swimming pool which turns out to be on a yacht. We then see that the yacht is actually an illustration on an advertisement on the side of a bus.  The bus is on TV and is being watched by a cowboy in desert.  We find that the cowboy is a picture on a postage stamp on a letter being sent to people on an island.  The island is seen by a pilot in an airplane.  The airplane is distanced through the clouds around the earth. The earth is viewed as an entire planet.  And finally, the earth is a mere speck in the blackness.

The delight of Zoom is that you do not know what you are seeing until you turn the page and the camera moves farther away. We make assumptions about the great vacation of the boy on the yacht until we realize that the yacht is anchored to an advertisement on a bus. We might wish to join the cowboy’s camping trip in the desert until we see that it is actually a postage stamp.

To paraphrase Robert Kegan, an adult developmental psychologist at Harvard, it’s not that we see things differently, it is that we see different things.

 We certainly cannot lead people if we do not see what they are seeing.  Leadership is an iterative process.  We must move back and forth from the balcony to the dance floor: observing, sharing information, asking questions, listening deeply and making constant adjustments.  Further, our job is to describe and interpret what we see from each vantage point.  We can help those who are confused by the free-form red shape with jagged points by helping them to understand that from a distance, this is a rooster’s comb. Those who are not privy to the leadership conversations may not understand a new policy—a leader’s job is to interpret that policy from the organizational view.  Conversely, if the policy makers have spent too much time away from the grassroots of the organization, that policy may be solving the wrong problem: the leader’s job is to get on the dance floor so that does not happen.

 

Leadership is complex.  It is iterative.  It requires multiple points of view.

 

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Banyai, I. (1995). Zoom. New York: Puffin Books.

 

Heifetz, R.A. and Linsky, (2017). Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dancers

of Leading.  Boston: Harvard Business School Press.