Experiencing Altitude Sickness?
Sometimes when leaders ascend quickly they can experience "Altitude Sickness" where their previous methods of achieving success no longer work.
Altitude sickness is defined as: “illness caused by ascent to a high altitude and the resulting shortage of oxygen, characterized chiefly by hyperventilation, nausea, and exhaustion…” This generally occurs when climbers’, hikers’ or skiers’ bodies cannot acclimate to higher altitudes where the oxygen is less abundant; they are operating in more rarified air.
I see a type of altitude sickness in my work with leaders as well. It happens most often when leaders ascend quickly from a successful role to a larger role that demands different competencies and presence:
• Fellowship program or manager associate program to leader of people (no direct authority to direct accountability)
• Leader of front-line teams to leader of leaders (manager to director level)
• Leader of leaders to leader of strategy (director to vice president level)
While the environment for the ascent of a leader in a corporation are different, the symptoms of altitude sickness may be the same. I frequently coach young leaders experiencing metaphoric symptoms of hyperventilation and very real symptoms of nausea and exhaustion. They are operating in rarified air, where the expectations of their work are very different from what made them successful previously.
In our work together, when a client is focused on how to operate in this new environment, I will frequently ask this question:
“How do you want to be in this particular circumstance?”
After a moment of reflection, the responses I receive are usually a list of deliverables and solutions designed to ensure their teams meet their goals. In other words, the responses are most often about what the leader thinks they need to do to be successful. While they now are responsible for translating organizational strategy, leading transformational change, developing other leaders or creating new lines of business, they are impacted by the pull of gravity, back to the deliverables that ensured their previous success.
The juxtaposition of doing and being can be perplexing and can seem like a new language for ascending leaders.
In their insightful 2005 article, Authentic Leadership: Balancing Doing and Being James C Galvin and Peter O’Donnell frame leadership development as a tree with seven layers. The dividing line between doing and being is the soil level—the self—where the visible parts of the tree are distinct from the deeper layers of the root base. Above the soil (or self) level are the visible elements of leadership that demonstrate a leader’s ability to be successful: skills, practices and behaviors (trunk, branches, leaves). Below the soil (self) line, are the elements of a leader that connect to who they are as a human being (mental frames, character, and alignment).
For a tree to grow strong as it ascends to new heights, the root base must thrive and grow deeper, otherwise the tree can topple in a strong winds or unexpected weather. When leaders experience altitude sickness, the best course of action is to connect to the self and explore those below-the-surface levels that connect them to their identity, values and passions. Otherwise they too may topple during times of change.
Through coaching work, as a leader connects through their self to the inner layers of their mental frames, character and alignment to explore who they want to be in a certain circumstance, they can then look outwards once again to their skills, practices and behaviors, which inevitable will have changed. In other words, their “doing” changes to “being”.
If you are a leader experiencing symptoms of altitude sickness in your new role, stop what you are doing, take a moment to connect with yourself and ask, “how do I want to be in this circumstance?” While the answers may not manifest right away, just asking the question will help you to access new information and reach new heights.