High altitudes hold a special place in the history of human achievement. From Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first reaching the summit of Mount Everest, to Felix Baumgartner jumping from a capsule at 127,000 feet. In the world of leadership, altitudes are also significant. However, the concern is much less about how high a leader can go, than about how they can seamlessly move between three distinct altitudes of leadership thinking.
Ram Charan, author, advisor and scholar, first developed the concept of leadership altitudes based on many decades of observing CEOs and leaders. It has extended 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 5 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 them. Using this analogy can focus people in a simple yet profound way, to generate crucial leadership insights.
Connecting the 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.
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 networks inside and outside their organization.
At 5 feet leaders use their ability to think at 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.
By using all the altitudes, leaders 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.
Leadership 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, 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, 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 like Elon Musk, Jack Ma or Steve Jobs. At the 50-foot level, a leader like Larry Bossidy (former CEO of Honeywell) brought implementation into absolute focus. But in his book Execution, co-authored with Ram Charan, he 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 5 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.
However, around 70% of senior executives display altitude sickness. They become disproportionately trapped at one of the three altitudes. This lack of flexibility can be dangerous for themselves, their teams and their organisations.
The largest group are 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. They don’t open themselves to new ideas and the outside world. 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 are trapped at 50,000 feet. Living in the clouds, such leaders announce a new vision every other week, never executing effectively to deliver results. As Nelson Mandela said, “Vision without action is merely day-dreaming. But vision with action can change the world.”
Perhaps the most problematic leaders of all are those trapped at 5 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.
How to fight altitude sickness
There are 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.
Reflect upon your leadership and your direction, and then practice 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 (5 feet).
And throughout this 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, and avoid altitude sickness.