Get Off the Dance Floor! – Utilize Adaptive Leadership

Every bookstore or library shelf has an abundance of books on leadership theories and styles.  They range from the theoretical to the practical and everything in between. This makes it difficult to find that one book with the perfect leadership style or theory.

Regardless of the books you read, you still can’t run your business from your desk or office.  Leadership techniques continue to change and the best way to run a sustainable business also continues to change. Your successful management of all these changes will be both to your advantage and to your organization’s competitive advantage.

As you read this, an older leadership theory is starting to re-emerge.  The theory is getting ‘off the floor’ and looking at your “system” from a higher level. Ron Heifetz, professor at Harvard University and author of Leadership Without Easy Answers made the point that leaders periodically need to get off the dance floor and get up on the balcony. By doing so, you can see the patterns and the flow of your employees working better than when they are right in front of you.

Get off of the dance
floor and look at
your operation from
the balcony.
– Ron Heifetz


Heifetz believes that leaders need to regularly “get up in the balcony” and get a different perspective of everything that is going on. This is very similar to the metaphor of not being able to see the “forest for the trees.”  You can’t see the forest when you’re in the trees so if you walk outside the tree line you can now see the forest. When on the balcony observing the dance floor, you can now see who is dancing well and who is struggling.

So when you are growing or leading your business, it is important to regularly make the time to consider where you want to be and what is changing around you rather than always being bogged down in (with) the details. When you apply the “getting off the dance floor” metaphor you will spend less time dancing and more time looking down from the balcony at the dancers to assess whether there is better way to do things. On the Dance Floor, you can find yourself in the action, consumed in the day to day running of your business. On the “Balcony”, you can take a step back from the details and take a clearer, more strategic view of what is going on in your business. Spending regular time on the balcony is important for you to see what you need to do in order to grow or lead your business.

SO – 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, the organization and its culture, or one’s boss. Here is a starter list.

  • Take some quiet time –Former Virginia Governor Gerald Baliles 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” (Heifetz, R. 2002).
  • Form a “kitchen cabinet” –The higher up you are in an organization, the more difficult it can be to truly get 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, and 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? Think about causes. Maybe he is 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 while 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 often point out, they never have time to do it right in the first instance, but they always seem to find time to get it right the second time. Organizational life looks different up on the balcony; that’s why you need to go there.

If you are interested in learning more on this topic, obtain a copy of Heifetz’s two books:

  • Get on the Balcony , Ronald A. Heifetz, Marty Linsky, 2002, Harvard Business Review Press
  • Leadership without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky, 1998. Belknap Press

References:

Heifetz, R. (2002), Get on the Balcony, Brighton, MA. Harvard Business Review

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