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Time to Get To Higher Ground


Admittedly, it has been a few years since I crossed the finish line for my last marathon. There are many memories of time spent pounding the pavement; not the least of which is that when I looked down, I slowed down, when I looked up, I sped up.

These thoughts returned as I rambled through my summer reading, which included finding two references to the concept of getting to the balcony.

Consultant Bob Greene writes that when in the midst of conflict, it may be time to go to the balcony. He writes, “The balcony is a metaphor for a mental attitude of detachment. From the balcony you can calmly evaluate the conflict almost as if you were a third party.”[1]

In a similar vein, Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky observe that, “In order to remain effective when under attack, a leader must be able to get some distance from the challenging situation—by going to the balcony.”[2]

These suggestions bring to mind a time when I was asked to be a judge at a business school strategy case competition. By use of a metaphor, I had observed that a particular team had developed and presented the perfect means of surviving and finding their way through a thick jungle—but no one had thought to climb the highest tree to determine that the jungle would end in a few hundred yards, only to be replaced by a desert!

Among the attributes of successful leadership is vision. Vision requires perspective.

When we allow ourselves to break away from the fray; to go—literally or figuratively—to a higher place, we can contemplate the end-state of what we are in the middle of now. We can look down on our work, not as a work in progress, but as a completed whole. We can stand downstream from a decision we are about to take and see that decision from that downstream place, and through that lens we can ‘see’ if it has turned out the way we had hoped it would. We can see prospective paths to a solution that are not necessarily immediately visible from ground level.

This conscious separation of oneself from the moment-to-moment demands of our work is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity. In fact we owe it to our organizations and stakeholders to do it. So, use some down time this summer to gain elevation – it may change your perspective. This may be one of the most critical changes in behaviour when moving into leadership – letting go of those activities which are no longer your job, and focussing on the bigger picture.

[2] Heifetz and Linsky, Harvard Business Review, April 9th 2002.

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