The power of self-observation

A very good analogy that is often used to describe oversight leadership, is that of the leader watching the activity on the dance floor from the balcony. The balcony gives the leader a great bird’s eye view on all the activity on the whole floor. As a dancer I love this analogy as it makes complete sense to me. It is important that a leader has a vantage point where one can see whether the various parties are moving in sync with the organisation’s rhythm and how they are dancing in relation to others. When you’re on the dance floor with everyone else, you are not able to see how the patterns are emerging on the floor. On the dance floor, everyone is more absorbed in how they are dancing with their partners and perhaps how they are interacting with those in their immediate vicinity – none of them can see the full picture.

The first time someone presented a similar analogy – the helicopter view – to me, was when I was in my first managerial role. While it is such an obvious common-sense concept for me now, and most leaders would have come across it in their careers, I can honestly say that I did not fully grasp what the person was trying to convey to me. At the time I fully believed that leading by example meant being in the trenches with the staff, showing them, for example, that carrying boxes was not beneath me. What I did not realise at the time was that, what I thought was a noble leadership trait, would keep me from seeing the whole picture as well as gathering enough information to build enough foresight.

But, I was young and inexperienced. As an eldest child I was raised to lead by example. My mom loved to use the analogy of a snake. I don’t know how many times I have heard: “Be careful! Remember you’re the head of the snake. Wherever you go the little ones will follow”. Sometimes I think that had led to an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, and that my parents had scarred me for life. But, now I digress.

It was only much later that I started to realise that the analogy of the balcony and the dancefloor is equally applicable to leaders observing their own dance from the balcony. When we observe what is happening on the dancefloor, it very seldom translates into us adding ourselves to the picture. In other words, do we think about what we look like when dancing on that same floor?

I had never seen myself dance, other than the glimpses in the mirrors that seem to be obligatory in dance studios. You can feel yourself dance and may create a mental picture of yourself on the dance floor, but you really have no idea what it is that others see. You also don’t really know whether your movements translate into the image you’re trying to project. That I realised when I saw myself dancing on video for the first time. A friend of mine had brought a camera to the dance studio and recorded me while dancing. Seeing myself dance was both gratifying and a bit of a shock. There were a number of things I hadn’t realised, such as my right foot tends to be lazy and does not go into full expression. Once I had seen it, I could feel it. I had become aware of the foot and battled to correct a bad habit that had settled over years. That was an ah-ha moment for me. I realised then that I needed to see myself from the vantage of an observer. Only then could I see my own blind spots.

Taking a step back and getting onto the balcony to observe yourself is probably one of the most difficult things to do. We don’t like acknowledging, nor watching, our flaws in action. However, as long as we are not aware of the flaws, we cannot correct them. It is always a lot easier to look at the flaws of others than looking at our own. For example, a fundamental flaw in my make up is that I have a tendency of thinking that everybody knows what I know. I may therefore not share insights because I assume that the other person already knows. That person may experience me as deliberately withholding information, while the truth is that it simply did not occur to me that they need me to share my insights. In addition, I have also had to learn that when I do share my insights, I can at times become so abstract in my explanation and forget that some may battle to follow my train of thought.

When we are able to convince ourselves that we need to become our own observers and step back, we open up a whole new world of possibilities in our own self development. But, that does sound easier said than done. How does one accomplish and maintain such a feat? Firstly, one must make peace with the fact that it is inevitable that you will find blind spots and that they may scare the living daylights out of you. A willingness to see our flawed naked self is a vital step in the process.

Secondly, one must be willing to be brutally honest with yourself and not go into self-protection, self-justification or rationalisation mode. When something uncomfortable is revealed about us, our instinct is often to make it someone else’s fault. “I lost my temper because they provoked me” instead of “I observe a pattern that indicates that I tend to lose my temper when I don’t get my way”, or “I lost my temper because I have poor impulse control”, or “I lost my temper because I tend to be too sensitive”, or “I lost my temper because the other person touched on a raw nerve I have not yet dealt with”.

Thirdly, find ways to put yourself on the balcony. I have found a few things that generally work for me (but, not professing that I have mastered the art):

  1. Personality test reports that give you deep insight into how you respond to the world and what you may project. I am a fan of the MBTI and have recently done the Enneagram, which have added additional perspectives. It has, for example, been helpful for me to understand that others may find me aloof and why that can play out. By understanding that, I can consciously modify what I project to make the next person feel more comfortable. But, I have to constantly remind myself that what I think I am projecting is not necessarily what the other person experiences.
  2. I regularly meditate and use some of those moments to play back some scenes of recent interactions, tapping into what I know the potential pitfalls of my personality type are and watching, objectively and without judgement, what behaviour played out. I find that the more I focus on those areas, the more conscious I become and the more I can modify and adjust.
  3. Having trusted friends who can honestly tell me how they experience my behaviour is very helpful. I know that they tell me things to help me become a better version of myself and not out of malice.
  4. Observing someone who has the same personality profile as mine has been hugely helpful. I have a friend whose profile is almost identical to mine. There are of course differences brought into play by different backgrounds, outlooks in life, culture, etc, but at the core of how we express ourselves and interact with the world, we are twins. I have probably learned more about how the world experiences me in interacting with my friend than from the personality tests themselves. I don’t know how many times I have gone: “Do I do that? I must really work on it because it is very annoying”.


Whatever tools you use as a leader, the bottom line is that it is not just about discovering how you experience the world, but more importantly, how others experience you and whether you are dancing to the rhythm or out of step with rhythm. When you are able to step back from your ego and harness the power of self-observation, you will constantly become a better version of yourself, and in turn a better leader. When is the last time you made a concerted effort to step away from yourself and observe?

More to explore

Outsourced morality

It is incumbent on each of us to constantly evaluate whether our moral compass is still pointing to our true north. We need to continually ask ourselves whether our actions are informed by our own beliefs that we carefully considered, before we concluded that they are fit to be used in our moral compass. How certain are we that we are not just believing what we are because those around us believe it? Or, that we are believing what we are because those who we have crowned with a halo believe it? Applying one’s own mind is paramount if we were to avoid the temptation of outsourcing our morality to others.

Fear can be your friend or your enemy

Whether we like it or not, we were not designed to be fearless. Fear is an emotional response connected to a basic need we all have – to feel safe. In the evolution of the human brain, this had been encoded for a very good reason. Our fear response is designed to trigger an action from us. If it’s a lion, we run. If we were to convince ourselves that we should not show fear and stand our ground, the stand we take is probably going to be immaterial to a starving lion. His fear that you may also be a threat, would most certainly be overridden by his fear of starving to death. Human beings are in any event rather defenceless without our modern weapons.

Know your rhythm

It is important that we work with our rhythm instead of against it. That is a sure way to increase our productivity. In the last number of months, I have started to notice that the number one issue I am dealing with among my coachees is burnout. Often that is because of a lack of understanding of what their rhythm is. We look after ourselves as leaders because we need to give those we lead the best version of ourselves. Selfcare is part of our leadership responsibility.

2 Responses

  1. Excellent insights Doc. Trouble with me is this: even when I stop to observe myself from the balcony, I often do so for myself and no one else. Why? Because I genuinely do not care what other people think of the better (or best) version of myself. Maybe I do; I’ve just convinced myself for so long that I believe it. Is it anyway I can find out what there real truth is? Do I really not care, or have I simply convinced myself that I don’t? Tricky.

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