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Why Every Leader Should Have a Balcony Moment

Fredrick Ouko | January 10, 2014

I am often reminded that I cannot change the world by myself, nor do it overnight. The business of changing the world is a process and requires concerted efforts that can only be achieved through team work, and teams require a leader who inspires and drives them towards the desired goal.

We often find leaders burning midnight light to conquer particular milestones in their path to “great success.” Consider the term “the buck stops with the leader.” The understanding is that the ultimate responsibility for success or failure lies entirely with the person at the head of the organization.  

A leader is often regarded as one who knows it all, has solutions to any problem and is able to detach himself emotionally—because his main role is to make sure things get done, not to please everyone.  

I used to belong to this same school of thought until I won a fellowship in 2009. As a YouthActionNet Fellow, part of the experience was a one week leadership training in Washington, DC. This training really changed my perspective on leadership and how one can and should re-energize to meet the demands of his or her calling as a leader.

The words of our trainer are eternally engrained in my mind. Dr. James Toole emphasized the need to withdraw from your work periodically to charge your energy, get new ideas, and evaluate yourself so that you will come back with better strategies that can steer your work forward.

His term for this withdrawal from leadership roles for reflection was "going to the balcony," taking many steps back from your daily tasks to have a conversation with yourself and decide the path that will lead you to the next milestone. This reflection time helps alleviate the usual burn-outs associated with leadership roles, including the fact that you treat every task as urgent, forgetting your health and personal life in the race. 

The possibility of your body shutting down physically or emotionally is imminent when you don’t provide it time for relaxation—a very real issue for founders of start-ups. When it happens, your goals will not be achieved as planned due to something that may have been avoided by incorporating more rest and quiet thinking moments into your schedule. 

In the past, I would not take my leave days because I felt that there was going to be a void in the office—I felt the need to be permanently present! My perspective really changed with Dr. James` perspective on the true measure of a leader. The fact that one is not planning to be on the balcony at any point in the year gives an indication of weak leadership skills—it reflects negatively on the team. It is assumed that no one can step-up to fill your shoes or that you are not willing to nurture leaders from within, resulting in a shaky succession plan for the organization.

It has been four years now, but this view of leadership has helped guide my actions as I continue pursuing my professional goals. If one asked me the greatest learning I took from the Fellowship, it is surely the reminder to go the balcony every so often as a leader to look at where you have come from, your current position and the future you want to navigate.

Fredrick Ouko is a YouthActionNet Fellow and disability rights activities based in Kenya. Fredrick founded Action Network for the Disabled (ANDY), and currently advises the Disability Rights Fund and the Global Disability Rights Library. Fredrick was also elected an Ashoka Fellow in 2012, and you can follow his work on his personal website or Facebook.