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 three distinct altitudes of leadership thinking.
Ram Charan, the distinguished author, advisor and scholar, first developed the concept of leadership altitudes based on many decades of observing CEOs and leaders. Together, we extended it into a framework that stresses the importance of thinking flexibly for leadership success in the disruptive, volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and diverse 21st century world.
The three critical leadership altitudes are: 50,000 feet, 50 feet and five feet. Effective leaders develop the capacity to “fly” their thinking at all three altitudes, not getting trapped at any one of them. They travel up and down easily, making the connections between all of the altitudes. Using this analogy can focus people in a simple, yet profound way to generate crucial leadership insights, as each altitude is so clearly different.
Connecting three altitudes
At 50,000 feet — the maximum altitude for commercial aircraft — leaders are able to see the big picture. They envisage possibility in disruption and connect the dynamic external world of customers, markets and change to a holistic view of their organization. This is also where they can encourage large-scale transformation and innovation linked to action, using what I call “panorama vision”. Concrete action happens at 50 feet, the tactical level close to the ground. At this altitude, thinking encompasses granular short-term goals and the crucial steps of planning, implementation and execution. This is also the space where leaders interact with their networks, inside and outside their organization.
Last but not least is the ability to think at five feet, the level of the self. Leaders need to be profoundly self-aware and grasp what they need to do to develop themselves. From this personal level, they can move to the tactical level of 50 feet and then soar to the big-picture altitude of 50,000 feet. I argue that leaders using all of the altitudes are able to combine complex and sometimes contradictory mindsets — global, strategic, tactical, value-creating, intellectual, creative, learning, emotional, pragmatic, process, customer, community and self — to become “insightfully aware” from multiple perspectives.
Altitudes in the real world
There are many leaders who capably connect all three altitudes. Notable examples are Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway, or Gail Kelly, the former CEO of Westpac Bank in Australia. Both easily link big-strategy choices with day-to-day execution, while maintaining a healthy sense of self-awareness. It’s not just modern leaders, either. Consider Marie Curie, who imagined the possibilities of radiation and then led concrete experiments for years, displaying personal resilience, persistence and courage.
There are also leaders who, though they remain flexible, produce remarkable outcomes at particular altitudes. Consider 50,000-foot thinkers such as Elon Musk, Jack Ma or Steve Jobs. At the 50-foot level, a leader such as Larry Bossidy (former CEO of Honeywell) brought implementation into absolute focus. But in his book Execution, co-authored with Ram Charan, Bossidy also described how day-to-day agility and acumen connect to the big picture and how to grow individuals and teams. Similarly, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, a model of highly self-aware leadership, continually shows how operations interlock with vision and why diversity matters.
Other leaders can leave a strong mark at five feet, too. For example, Chade-Meng Tan, one of Google’s earliest engineers, created the “Search Inside Yourself” course on emotional intelligence and mindfulness in 2006-7. The course eventually grew into a leadership institute. Through INSEAD’s Advanced Management Programme, I meet hundreds of executives who deepen their self-awareness and commit to closing the gaps holding them back from being the best leader they can be.
(PART-II of this Leadership Oped, by Ian C. Woodward, will be published on June 10. 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.)