By Ian C. Woodward- Professor of Management Practice at INSEAD
High altitudes hold a special place in the history of human achievement. We remember New Zealander mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese sherpa Tenzing Norgay as the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Other altitude pioneers include Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human to reach outer space, and Neil Armstrong, the first person on the moon. More recently, in 2012, Austrian Felix Baumgartner skydived from a capsule at 127,000 feet.
In the world of leadership, too, altitudes are significant. However, the concern is much less about how high a leader can go, than about how he or she can seamlessly move between distinct altitudes of leadership thinking.
However, in my research work, I was startled to discover that approximately 70 percent of senior executives display a phenomenon called “altitude sickness”. They become disproportionally trapped at one of these three altitudes. This lack of flexibility can be dangerous for themselves, their teams and their organizations.
The largest group is those who almost never leave the 50-foot sphere and eventually become resistant to change. Ram Charan describes them as stuck in the “rear-view mirror”. They do not use “outside-in” or “future-back” thinking. I see them as “legacy hostages”, as they don’t open themselves to new ideas and the outside world. Just think of the leaders of Kodak. Leaders caught in 50-foot thinking see neither the opportunities nor the threats of disruption. While being effective at the tactical level of 50 feet is essential for business performance — and is often richly rewarded — it can become a dangerous comfort zone.
The second-largest group with altitude sickness is trapped at 50,000 feet. Living “in the clouds”, such leaders announce a new vision every other week. As Nelson Mandela said: “Vision without action is merely day dreaming. But vision with action can change the world.”
The third, yet much smaller group with altitude sickness comprises perhaps the most problematic leaders of all: those trapped at five feet. These super egoists and narcissists spend an excessively large amount of time thinking about themselves. The archetypal micro-managers, they get in everybody’s way. This group includes psychopathic leaders and others suffering from mental disorders.
Fighting altitude sickness
Our leadership development work shows vital benefits in using all three leadership altitudes. The time spent at each is not likely to be identical. However, leaders who can consciously and flexibly think, act and communicate at the three different altitudes are perceived as extremely effective.
So, my advice is simple. Reflect upon your leadership and your direction, and then practise thinking, acting and communicating at the different altitudes. Even if you’re not responsible for setting your organization’s vision, spend some time each week thinking and learning about the outside world, its possibilities, its changes, its trends and the resulting opportunities or threats, now and in the future (50,000 feet).
Likewise, allot time for executing, implementing and doing (50 feet). Lastly, set aside time to reflect on who you are, what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and how you can challenge yourself to be the best leader that you can be (five feet). In this leadership journey, support your growth by getting coaching, mentoring and feedback, and by making time for reflection and learning. Consciously create a set of mindsets and habits that work effectively across all three leadership altitudes: from the big picture, to the tactical, to the self.
Connect them all. Just avoid altitude sickness.
(PART-I of this Leadership Oped, by Ian C. Woodward, was published on June 7. Ian is Professor of Management Practice at INSEAD, specializing in Leadership and Communication. He is Director of the Advanced Management Programme, an INSEAD Executive Education Programme held in Fontainebleau and Singapore.)