How to Lead from the Dancefloor and Balcony: Adaptive Leadership

adaptive leadership
Photo by Maurício Mascaro

How to be an adaptive leader

What does adaptive leadership mean and where should you be as the boss? Should a manager get stuck in with the action of the team or is a leader best placed standing back and surveying things from a distance? In other words, should you be on the dance floor or looking down from the balcony?

I am quite a hands-on kind of person. I like to lead from the front, so it is quite easy for me to get stuck in the action. But I learned early on the importance of being able to take a step back. One event of note, that reinforced this lesson, happened on 25th December 2001.

An unusual Christmas Day

I was the commander of the Incident Response Team as part of the NATO mission in Bosnia. My multi-national squad was comprised of medics, firefighters, bomb disposal experts, communicators, a helicopter crew and even a dog (who could sniff out mines). We were tasked with the quick response to any life-threatening incident that affected NATO troops; be that a mine strike, road traffic accident or bomb threat.

On that day, Christmas Day, I had been up early to deliver presents to my team. I then help to set up and serve Christmas lunch for the troops. After dinner I was looking forward to a lazy afternoon in my cabin, opening my presents received from back home. That was until there was a knock at the door.

I was not happy at being disturbed and was about to express this to the Dutch soldier at the door. But before I opened my mouth they blurted out “Someone has been shot! They are in the medical wing!”

A critical issue

I quickly put on my jacket and raced down to the medical facility and then on to the treatment room. I was met by a wall of people blocking the entrance and a cacophony of chatter coming from inside. It was impossible to see what was going on or to make out what anyone was saying. So, I grabbed one of the doctors I recognised and pulled them to one side.

I then proceeded to ask a series of questions such as what has happened? Who is the injured party? What was the severity of the injury? While talking about the nature of the gunshot wound the doctor mentioned that the casualty would need to be evacuated to another hospital in the north of the country. My brain raced. It was winter in Bosnia, we were in the hills, and there was snow everywhere; it would take too long by road. This led me to my next question: “has anyone warned the helicopter crew to get ready?”

My voice must have carried, as suddenly things went much quieter and many of the medics had turned to face me. The wide eyes told the story. Everyone had been too focussed on the immediate needs of the patient to think about what needed to happen next; they were too close to the action.

The Balcony and the Dance

The metaphor of ‘the balcony and the dance’ was devised by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow and is explained in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (2009).

The idea is that a good manager knows when to get off the dance floor and head to the balcony for a better view. This different viewpoint – away from the movement and noise of the dancefloor – allows the leader to see the whole system, and identify patterns, problems and group dynamics. This perspective allows the leader to understand and best influence what is going on. 

In the words of Grashow, Linskyt and Heifetz:

“To diagnose a system or yourself while in the midst of action requires the ability to achieve some distance from those on-the-ground events. We use the metaphor of “getting on the balcony” above the “dance floor” to depict what it means to gain the distanced perspective you need to see what is really happening.”

What is Adaptive Leadership? 

This balcony and dancefloor approach is part of being an adaptive leader. Adaptive leadership is defined thus:

Adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.” 

Grashow, Linskyt and Heifetz (2009)

At the heart of the Adaptive Leadership theory are the ideas of problem identification, seeing organisations as systems comprising of people, understanding the culture and values of an organisation, and working out how best to influence the system (people) toward a clear purpose. 

These concepts are captured in the four groups or stages of activities for the Adaptive Leader:

  1. Diagnose the system
  2. Mobilise the system
  3. See yourself as a system
  4. Deploy yourself

Diagnosing the problem

Adaptive leadership starts with problem diagnosis. As with medicine, the diagnosis comes before action. If we want to solve a problem we first must ask, what sort of problem are we dealing with? 

Here there are some other models and problem frameworks to help us. For example, the Cynefin framework helps us identify the nature of the problem, whether it is simplecomplicatedcomplex or chaoticKeith Grint’s model assists us in choosing which leadership style to apply given the type of problem, tame (simple) problems require management, critical problems require command and wicked problems need leadership.

Once the problem is diagnosed the leader can start to energise the system to solve it, and as the team starts to work, the leader moves from the dancefloor to the balcony, as required, to assess and manage progress.

Being in Flow

Once a manager is good at balancing paradigms – from the balcony or dancefloor – they can get to the point where they can maintain these two viewpoints conceptually, even if they are in the same place physically. As Grashow et al explain:

“When you move back and forth between balcony and dance floor, you can continually assess what is happening in your organization and take corrective midcourse action. If you perfect this skill, you might even be able to do both simultaneously: keeping one eye on the events happening immediately around you and the other eye on the larger patterns and dynamics.”

Grashow, Linsky and Heifetz

Or in the words of Keanu Reeves, “It’s Meta Baby!” Leaders in this state of flow can enter a quantum or non-binary state where they see both perspectives at once. 

My experience of adaptive leadership

Achieving that sense of flow and dual perspective does not always happen, but I was in that state on that Christmas Day in Bosnia. From that moment of crisis onwards, I felt I had the pulse of the team and the situation, and we all moved purposefully towards our goal.

I am happy to report that we got the casualty on the helicopter and safely evacuated them to the hospital. While the casualty went into the operating theatre, my team and I flew back, back up the winding valleys of the Bosnian hills, towards our base. I distinctly remember sitting at the door of the helicopter, watching the sunset over the mountains, tired but smiling, knowing we had had a good day. We had fulfilled the ideal of adaptive leadership, in “mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive.”

What challenges can make your team thrive today?

So, in the challenges you face today, where do you need to be? On the dance floor or the balcony? 

As a manager, where do you prefer to be? Do you need to be on the balcony a bit more to get a better leadership perspective? How can you get better at seeing both perspectives at the same time?

Whatever the challenge is, see it as an opportunity to thrive. Relish the adventure and have the satisfaction of seeing your team thrive while overcoming obstacles. 


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