Taking time from the day-to-day to take the long view

Unsplash / Kevin Young

Some work cultures discourage leaders from reflecting on their practice of leadership and the institution’s strategic direction. But this time is vital -- and it’s up to the leader to encourage it.

Most leaders have heard and have benefited from Ron Heifetz’s insistence that leaders need “balcony time,” when they step back from the metaphorical dance floor of their daily obligations to take the long, strategic view.

While leaders intuitively know the truth of what Heifetz says, it can be hard to find the time to climb into the balcony to reflect on an institution’s life and priorities. But, for many leaders, the deeper obstacle to taking time on the balcony is not finding time but feeling permission to do it.

Take, for example, the recent four-day learning retreat for currently serving bishops of the United Methodist Church in San Diego.

These senior leaders came away from the tyranny of the urgent to learn from each other and a variety of outside thought leaders to reflect on their practice of leadership and the way that they can best serve the church today. It was balcony time in the purest sense.

And yet, prior to the gathering, as word spread about the retreat, the blogosphere filled with paranoid predictions and calls for the “closed meeting” to be opened to the public. It made headlines and elicited sharp editorials in denominational newspapers.

None of these critiques stopped the retreat, but they had to color the way that these leaders entered their time on the balcony. The message was clear -- “you do not have my permission to take time apart to reflect, learn and grow.”

This is a bit of an extreme example. In most institutions, leaders don’t confront internal or external bloggers mocking their balcony time; it is institutional culture that can be a real impediment to taking that time.

One mid-level executive recently lamented to me that his taking even 30 minutes per week for a higher-level view of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats faced by his program area would violate subtly articulated office norms about the use of time. “What would I have to show for it? I’m worried my boss would think that I’m just goofing off.”

To borrow another Heifetzism, this may be part of the razor’s edge of leadership. If getting on the balcony is vital but leaders don’t feel liberty to do it, how are they to proceed?

The answer is by the slow work of introducing and normalizing balcony time into organizational culture. This necessitates senior-level leader initiative and mentoring.

What if, for example, it became an organizational practice that every person with strategic responsibilities met once a month to get on the balcony together? The senior leader could identify key trends or elements in the environment that she or he observes, and others could offer their own observations.

By both modeling taking a balcony view and inviting others to participate in this, the senior leader blesses and enriches the practice. Or, what if, in a centrally located conference room, each staff person was given permission to post sticky notes with observations about institutional priorities and external challenges that become apparent through their own work?

In the case of the United Methodist bishops, what if the response to the opposition had been a challenge to every pastor and lay leader to take time to reflect on the welfare of his or her own congregation while seeking out conversation partners to spark growth and change?

When senior leaders model and encourage effective practice, they create a mutually reinforcing pattern of permission-giving.