Altitude Sickness of Executives

How to acclimatize to the reality of executives. As you ascend to the top, the air becomes actually thinner. One breath at high altitude delivers one-third less oxygen to your bloodstream, which diminishes both your mental sharpness and physical agility.

Leaders who limb rapidly to the top of an organisation often suffer from similar disorienting and debilitating symptoms.

Everyone who travels to high altitudes is at risk of acute mountain sickness, but part of the mystery of the illness is predicting who will become affected and to what degree. Expedition journals recount many instances of apparently fit and healthy climbers becoming severely impaired by high altitude sickness symptoms, while their less fit and older companions remain largely unaffected. This is true for career heights as well. Predicting who and how individuals will respond in the rarefied air of the executive suite is only partly function of technical preparation but must also consider psycho-emotional and behavioural factors as well.

These are four of the most widespread, almost every executive experience these disorienting, called ALTITUDE SICKNESS. Just like when you're climbing a mountain and you can't breathe well, you have to adjust to the altitude. Many newly promoted leaders experience as well that their new status comes with several distortions that leave them feeling off balance.

1) Larger than Life: People define you in an exaggerated fashion

Suddenly the leaders realise that their life is playing out on a huge screen in public, that people are making up versions of them, that they're being quoted as saying things they never said, that motives and decisions are being attributed to them that they had nothing to do with, and suddenly they are disoriented. Unfortunately their immediate instinct is to hide to try to protect self because they don't know how to manage all these hundreds of perceptions of them that are out there in distant corners of the organisation. So, the level of visibility of their role and the constant judgement of their work by people who don't even know them is very unsettling.

2) Megaphone Effect: it occurs when your behavioural and verbal messages become amplified with your elevated status

You realize when you enter into your top role, all of a sudden you have a megaphone strapped to your mouth 24/7 and that everything you say and do is amplified largely, that people are going to misinterpret your words, they are going to mishear your words, that when you get in the elevator there's no such thing as small talk. You can't even walk, if you are walking down the hall quickly, people may assume, "Oh my gosh, something's wrong," You might just have to go to the bathroom, but people will attach serious meaning to what they see. It doesn't mean you should become overly alert and start self-monitoring everything you do, but certainly an extra dose of self-awareness and authenticity is needed. Don't try and hide yourself. Don't try and hide things from people. That's what is going to get you in trouble and people will see right through it. You cannot manage every single perception or misperception of you that is being formed in the organisation, but you can do what you can to make sure people know what you want them to perceive and that you broadcast to people the things you want them to know about you and that can at least stop the flood on some of the things that happen as people make you up in their heads.

3) Sifted data: it occurs when the quality and quantity of data shared with you changes

The third one is the information plug. So suddenly, leaders who had access to all kinds of great information flows and networks of people with insights, suddenly they find that their data sources and their information sources are drying up and when information arrives on their desk, it's been filtered, it's been sifted. They don't quite understand what information they can rely on, who they can trust. They thought when they arrive in a bigger job, they will have all the information they want, all the perspectives they want, and have access to all the secret data that they didn't have access to before, and it's very disorienting for them to discover that those secret data sources don't exist and in fact sometimes there is some information that they're even less privy to because people keep it from them.

4) Aliens Next Door: a change in interactions with peers and direct reports that results in alienation from formerly comfortable relationships

And lastly, is the relational landscape. This one can be one of the most disorienting. Leaders may feel like aliens in a foreign land, like they've arrived on a different planet. And this is the reality of the fact that people who were your direct reports are no longer in a relationship with you anymore. People who were your peers are now your direct reports. People who were your bosses are now your peers. So, suddenly the whole boundary conditions have changed. All of the ways you relate to these people have to shift. How you interact with them, the favours they now want from you, the rivalry you now feel with them, all of the disorienting relational dynamics. Because most executives, naïve we think, hey, I'm still me, and they don't appreciate the fact that at a higher altitude, the rules do change in relationship and the boundary conditions have to be re-set and you have to re-contract with people about how you are going to work with them. Most leaders don't take the time to do that and unfortunately pay a price for it relationally. And this is one of the things that makes being an executive so lonely and so isolating and so anxiety-provoking, because they don't really have a network of trusted confidantes they can talk to in the same way as they used to.

Which of these four altitude sicknesses are you experiencing as an executive?


Sources: Rising to Power: The Journey of Exceptional Executives by Ron Carucci & Eric C. Hansen & World Business & Executive Coach Summit 2019, Preparing Leaders for Senior Roles of Broader Influence presented by Ron Carucci

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