Leading from the Airship

Leading from the Airship February 27, 2016

This week’s New Yorker had an article about the resurgence of airships.  Sure, we’ve seen blimps floating over football games.  But, after the Hindenburg crashed in flames (New Jersey, 1937), the world moved on to airplanes, and then rockets.  Still, the romance and the usefulness of airships maintained their appeal among a very few.  Now–against the odds–airships seem poised for a comeback.  For instance, you could load an airship with cargo–four football fields’ worth!–which could be easily shipped to a rural area, with impassable roads.  A year’s provisions for a village.

Daydreaming about airships that day made me wonder.  What if a leader functioned as an airship?


The conventional wisdom in organizational studies is that a leader needs to deploy both proximity and distance.  Both “time for reflection,” away from the hub-bub, but also “management by walking around,” when the boss strolls the halls, checking in on things.  Christians will remember that Jesus had both moments of hands-on healing as well as time off on his own for prayer (Mark 1:35, Matthew 14:13, Luke 5:16, etc, etc).

In his seminal book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz uses the metaphor of “the balcony” and “the dance floor.”  He says:

Let’s say you are dancing in a big ballroom. . . . Most of your attention focuses on your dance partner, and you reserve whatever is left to make sure you don’t collide with dancers close by. . . . When someone asks you later about the dance, you exclaim, “The band played great, and the place surged with dancers.”

But, if you had gone up to the balcony and looked down on the dance floor, you might have seen a very different picture. You would have noticed all sorts of patterns. . . you might have noticed that when slow music played, only some people danced; when the tempo increased, others stepped onto the floor; and some people never seemed to dance at all. . . . the dancers all clustered at one end of the floor, as far away from the band as possible. . . . You might have reported that participation was sporadic, the band played too loud, and you only danced to fast music.

. . .The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray. . . .

If you want to affect what is happening, you must return to the dance floor.*

In other words, the balcony gives you perspective.  But real decisions happen down on the dance-floor.  That, Heifetz hints, is where the action is.

Another writer on leadership, Stephen Haines, also used distance and proximity, but slightly differently.  A few years ago, when I attended a training by the Haines Centre for Strategic Management, each participant received two toys.  One was a Rubik’s Cube.  The other, a toy helicopter, the size of the palm of your hand.

In its systems-based management cycle, the Haines model prescribes two different relationships to an endeavor.  For planning–and then later, for monitoring–the Haines model says a leader should be “up in a helicopter.”  A bird’s-eye view gives perspective and context–similar to Heifetz’s notion of “the balcony.”  But getting close to the work again isn’t for generally getting back into the mix (or “the dance,” as Heifetz would say).  It’s specifically for the phases of implementation and analysis.  And the leader is required to engage like someone trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube.  So, distance and proximity call not only for different mind-sets.  They call for different skill-sets.


In 1972, psychologist and architect Bryan Lawson once conducted a study on the difference in how budding architects and budding scientists approached a challenge.  In sum, the young scientists focused on the problem, to maximize information, and thereby derive the governing rules.  The young architects focused on the solution, generating possible options and combinations.  The scientists (oriented to problems) tended toward analysis.  The architects (oriented toward solutions) tended toward synthesis.  Design thinking, which Lawson contributed to, later would integrate synthesis and analysis–as does Haines, in his management cycle.

But before applauding how one might integrate two modes of thought, let’s pause to observe.  For his study, Lawson recruited two categories of people: scientists and architects.  Specialists in different ways of thinking.  Differently oriented, differently gifted.

When one of my children was 5, I was the coach for a pint-sized soccer team.  They were so excited to be on the field.  So excited to be playing with each other.  And so excited by the shouting their parents did from the sidelines.  But playing positions?  Was not going to happen.  They swarmed the ball, in a roving scrum that drifted all over the field.  Organizations of adults can end up something like this.  Everyone gets in on every decision.  Everyone needs to be consulted.  Formal roles, like the positions of a kindergarten soccer team, are quickly abandoned.  And every challenge becomes like a soccer ball followed by a confused swarm.

Later that year, I took my kids to a high school soccer game.  They saw the long arcs of the ball, as a backfielder would pass to a mid-fielder, and then on to a striker.  It was a different vision of playing together, of collaboration, than the kindergarten team had practiced.  Or than organizations or congregations can practice.  It was the kind of collaboration that did not ask a backfielder to also be a goalie.  It was one that honored and incorporated different people, of different gifts, into a larger team effort.


As a child myself, one of my favorite stories was Frederick, by Leo Lionni.  Frederick is a mouse who lives in a stone wall.  While all the other mice spend the summer scurrying around, collecting grain for the winter, Frederick spends his time in the sun, daydreaming.  As I recall, the other mice are none too happy about it, but Frederick proves his worth when winter comes, by telling stories, and sharing what he harvested in his daydreams.  As child inclined to daydreams, and sometimes  baffled by practical matters, this story appealed to me greatly.  It affirmed the importance of daydreams and grain-collecting, both.  But then I grew up.

As a young minister, people wanted me to make decisions.  And, by gum, I wanted to make them.  People wanted to ask me things.  I wanted to answer.  They wanted me at meetings.  And so I’d show up–heck, I’d even schedule them myself.  I found myself running ragged, trying to keep up with every little thing, and every last detail.  Like a lot of organizations, a congregation has an annual budget and program cycle, which is constantly bombarded by eruptions of events no one could have planned.  And the church got busier.  I felt obliged to be in on it all.  As our church functioned within Policy Governance, I was the Head of Staff.  So, I felt pressure to perform as a competent manager.  But there was only one problem: often, that meant asking me to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

I can’t solve Rubik’s Cubes.  Never have.  You may say, “Oh, sure you can.  You just have to practice.”  But I can’t.  And I’ll tell you why.  Not only am I not inclined to, and not gifted at the kind of thinking that would make one learn it.  I have no interest.  So, I’m not going to practice.  I’m content to say, “I can’t solve them” and leave it at that.

But, despite having no inclination, little gift, and no interest in management, I spent my early years of ministry trying to improve in it.  Worried that I’d be found out.  Exposed as a fraud.  You may know Peter Drucker’s famous distinction: “Leadership is doing the right things; management is doing things right.”  Well, I was confident about leadership.  It was management–doing things right–that gave me fits.  I bought books on time management.  Hired a woman who coaches executives on how to organize their offices–after a year, she gave up on me.  I made elaborate plans and diagrams and schedules.  It drove the staff nuts.  Because they knew how to solve a Rubik’s Cube.  They were good at making things work right.  They were good at finding the grain, and bringing it in to storage for winter.  I wasn’t good at any of that.  What I was good at?  Daydreaming.  Being up in a helicopter.  Up in the balcony.  Taking that wider view.


Now, in my thirteenth year with the same congregation, I still help manage the budget.  I’m still Head of Staff.  I have tasks I don’t like that I still have to do.  But here’s what I’ve realized: not everyone’s favorite childhood story was about a daydreaming mouse.  Some people liked the story of The Little Engine That Could–a story of persistent effort.  Some liked the story of The Three Little Pigs–about industriousness, and using strong materials to do the job right.  And we can find one another, and allow our gifts to be expressed in harmony.

Here’s my point.  Design thinking, or systems-based management, or any number of concepts by which you might lead an organization, will ask a person to integrate different approaches to a challenge: synthesis and analysis.  Dreaming and planning.  Storytelling and measuring.  Leadership books sometimes suggest that a competent leader needs to be able to do it all, to master a wide range of skills and orientations.  But I’m here to suggest that I’m not sure that’s true.  Maybe what helps more is the ability to say, with Popeye, “I yam what I yam.”  Be it a pig, or an engine, or a daydreaming mouse.

What’s required is people who understand themselves and their own gifts, who trust one another and respect and appreciate each other’s differences, and work with clarity toward a common goal.  Like a high school soccer team, not like a swarm of kindergartners.  For an organization to function at top level, I believe you don’t even need the best people, or the brightest (or else I’d be out of the running).

As Google has discovered, what’s more important than any individuals are the norms to which a whole team agrees.  Like the norm of appreciation.  Or respect.  Or staying in one’s own lane.  Or complementing a team-mate who can’t do what you do, just as you can’t do what that team-mate can do.  What matters is knowing clearly your small part in the larger whole.


Maybe Ronald Heifetz would have you back and forth, down the stairs and then up again, from the dance-floor to the balcony.  But, these days, I’ve learned that where I serve the world best is in holding that wide view, seeing the lay of the land, naming the values and principles, telling the story, weaving in new events and ideas into the larger whole.  That means some distance.  Not out of coldness.  But because daydreaming matters.  And it takes time to reflect on how some event or eruption fits into the larger story.  It takes time to pray.  To understand the dynamics within some little conflict at church, or out in the community.  It takes time to write.  To figure out something to say that’s worth hearing.

I don’t think every minister or leader needs to be an airship.  I know some fine leaders who are The Little Engine That Could.  And others who are the third Little Pig. And others who seem to be drawing on all kinds of different stories.  Not everyone, when young, perked up to the story of Frederick the Mouse.

But, to serve an organization’s mission well, it’s important to get really clear on our gifts, and spend as much time as we can sharing them, in partnership with others, who have other gifts.  And the gift you have may be the very thing you have been running from.  God knows I wanted to be buttoned-down, square-cornered, and doing things right in the thick of it all.  I wanted to be an engine.  I yearned to be the third pig.  And I tried.  But it turns out, perhaps, I was meant for other things.

After the Hindenburg crashed, for a long time, people thought that airships were an utter disaster, and good for nothing.  But, recently, it seems that a vessel up there, moving slowly, with a wide view over all the terrain below, might be of some practical use, after all.


Jake Morrill is minister of the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church.  He is a student in the Post-Graduate Program at the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.  Twice a year, in East Tennessee, he hosts a training to help clergy apply systems thinking to their ministries.


"Dear Author,As I read your words I am both "boosted", yet simultaneously frustrated for the ..."

The Spiritual Practice of Agnosticism
"In other words it should be'celebrated' in the way we 'celevrate" Remembrance Day (11th hour ..."

The Meaning of Memorial Day
"Talk about that moral arc of the universe that bends toward justice is metaphysical talk—theology—not ..."

#Charlottesville and Getting Real
"My tradition is Advaita Vedanta. Yoga is actually union with God. Advaita recognizes no duality ..."

To Whom It May Concern: the ..."

Browse Our Archives