What do Romeo and Juliet, Eva Peron, and William and Kate all have in common? They all rocked a balcony. 

And so should you, according to Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their classic book Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business Review Press, 2002). Heifetz and Linsky suggest that leaders need to step back to get perspective. They call this “Going to the Balcony.”

This is not a new concept, though it’s been called many things. Athletes refer to it as being both in and on the game. The Jesuits call it contemplation in action. And Buddhists refer to it as mindfulness. Heifetz and Linsky see it as mentally stepping back from the action. Imagine that you are dancing in a ballroom with a balcony overhead. While on the dance floor, your perspective is limited to those immediately around you and to your own experience. But if you get off the dance floor and go the balcony, the scene you observe will be very different. By looking down as an objective observer, you will see the whole picture and not just the things that immediately surround you. You may be able to see patterns and trends and gain information that a view from the dance floor could not provide. By removing yourself from the action, you gain a clearer view of reality. Let’s talk about three different ways to get to the balcony.

Balcony Scene: Take One. In this scene you are engaged in a meeting that seems to be going nowhere. You know the one—you attend at least one a week. The conversation is going in a circular motion. In this scene, you mentally take yourself to the balcony and observe the meeting from afar, distancing yourself from the fray, if only for a minute. You must view yourself, as well as others in the meeting, as impartially as you can. That’s not an easy task, but Heifetz and Linsky insist that, with practice, it can be done.

On the balcony during your momentary hiatus, you see who says what, you watch for body language, for relationships among the attendees (how people respond and relate to each other) and for patterns. Observe if people jump to familiar conclusions. Detach just long enough to assess what is really going on.

Heifetz and Linsky suggest watching how a colleague’s style affects the delivery of his or her ideas. Does someone’s track record give that person credibility or influence that may not be warranted in the situation? Does status affect how someone’s message is received? Are fresh ideas from the “new kid” being dismissed in lieu of the same old, same old from the C-suite? When you return to the meeting with this new perspective, you bring fresh ideas and insights that could allow the meeting to move in a more positive direction.

Balcony Scene: Take Two. You don’t always have to be in the middle of something to benefit from stepping back momentarily for contemplation. In his blog “Why Every Leader Should Have a Balcony Moment,” posted on YouthActionNet, an initiative supporting youth-led social entrepreneurship, Fredrick Ouko recalls advice that had a tremendous impact on him. A mentor of his recommended “balcony moments” to recharge energy, get new ideas and evaluate yourself. He describes going to the balcony as taking steps back from daily tasks to have a conversation with yourself before you decide your next action. My friend Holly describes this as giving yourself permission to “wander and wonder.” Whether you close your office door or get outside for a walk, give yourself time to clear your mind and think about things with a fresh perspective.

In an article titled “Getting Off the Dance Floor and On the Balcony,” published on the website of Governing magazine, Russ Linden offers some ideas on how busy managers can get up on the balcony.

  • Form a “Kitchen Cabinet”—a small group of trusted advisors who will be candid with you. Ideally, your advisors will show good judgment, a thorough knowledge of the organization and self-confidence. Most importantly, you should trust their advice.
  • Listen to your boss—The people you report to see the larger picture. Their message comes from a different vantage point.
  • Create emissaries—people who can tell you what other groups are saying.
  • Listen to the music beneath the words. Only 7% of the meaning of a message is delivered with words. By contrast, 38% is delivered with voice, and 55% is conveyed with body language. Be sure to step back and take everything into account.

Balcony Scene: Take Three. The most dramatic scene of all, and probably the most effective, takes place when you physically step away from your work and invest time in your own development. Leave the office for a couple of days and immerse yourself in new ways of looking at things. Of course I know the perfect place for you to do this—The Council’s Leadership Academy. We offer several opportunities a year to step out of your business so you can work on your business. I promise you will return with a fresh perspective.

Join us on the balcony and see things from a different vantage point.