Louis Weeks: The beauty of the balcony view

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The move from professor to president requires a move from Ron Heifetz’s dance floor to the balcony. Advice from a board members steeped in wisdom from the business world helped.

“He can’t see the forest for the trees,” one lay leader recently told me about her pastor. She said he scurries around doing tasks that don’t add up to much. Meanwhile the church languished as its membership aged, worship grew boring, and mission efforts lost their meaning.

Thankfully, I also hear of pastors and lay leaders who lead wisely. A Roman Catholic priest in Denver told me of the great needs in his parish, especially for better integration of the longtime neighborhood population with recent immigrants from Nigeria, Sudan, and elsewhere in Africa. The church is an especially important refuge for these folks. So he helped fashion food fairs in which African peoples offered their feasts for those in the neighborhood of the church. And he served some of the food himself.

This “double-mindedness” -- simultaneously paying attention to the big picture while being involved in its particular parts -- seems a crucial element in helping Christian communities grow and flourish.

The best expression of that insight comes from Ronald Heifetz, in “Leadership Without Easy Answers.” He speaks of leaders “getting on the balcony” as well as engaging in the dance. In the dance, according to Heifetz, we get caught up in the music and pay attention to our own partner. But leaders have responsibility to reflect on the whole ensemble from above it from time to time, as well as to step lively in the dance itself. Heifetz quotes Walt Whitman to say that leadership is a matter of being “both in and out of the game.”

Though perhaps I had intuited the value of “standing on the balcony” as an academic, the importance of taking a careful look from the balcony was impressed on me when I began service at what was then Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

At my very first meeting of the Executive Committee of Union, members all told me of the need to merge ASAP with our neighbor institution, the Presbyterian School of Christian Education. One of the trustees summed up the situation: “If they go under, we lose big time.” Another chimed in, “If it doesn’t happen quickly, they go down the toilet.” But previous conversations between the boards had made little progress.

After the meeting, the chair of the board, a wise Presbyterian elder who developed commercial properties for a living, told me he would like a brief statement from me of what the merged school should look like “ten years from now.” “Broad strokes,” he advised, “and whatever processes seem most appropriate to get there. I won’t share it with anyone until you tell me to.”

With the scant information at hand in my files, the knowledge I possessed of the two schools, and a conversation with our newly-defined “Executive Staff of the President, (ESP),” I took one Sunday afternoon and evening to plot the goal and the process.

This “look from the balcony,” as we came to call it, proved invaluable as we undertook the process of reconfiguring the dance. As time went by, he and I made a few modifications in the brief document, and we shared it with others as it became appropriate to seek additional views from the balcony. It became the substance of proposals for funding, for enlisting consultants, for negotiating in a joint committee of board members from the schools, and in dealing with matters of faculty, curriculum, student enlistment, and development. We later used the same tactics with good effect -- opening a new campus, increasing enrollment, engaging successfully in two capital campaigns, building a “thicker” ecology for seminary vitality.

“Standing on the balcony” is a beautiful, necessary part of leadership.