High Altitude Leadership

At very high altitudes mountain climbers can suffer terrible side effects from the lack of oxygen in the air. This lack of oxygen causes hypoxia which leads to headaches, flawed judgement, confusion and eventually hallucinations.

I think something similar happens as people move up in organizations. The higher you climb, the less “oxygen” you consume which leads to some questionable leadership, beliefs, decisions and certainly flawed judgement.

What Happens When You Climb to the Highest Peaks

  • Less and less people tell you the truth.

Fearing your reaction some people will be afraid to tell you the truth. In other cases, people may think the less you know the better (plausible deniability and all that). Considering that your decisions have bigger impact, the higher you go, this lack of information can have terrible effects on your decision making.

  • Your reality becomes very different.

In your high altitude world, you get a lot of vacation,  no one tracks your time, you get used to customer trips to far -flung locations and lots of excellent dinners on the company dollar. Its a very different reality than the rest of the people in your organization., who may be nickel and dimed over their expense reports.

  • You start to believe your own hype.

To get to the top of the corporate pack, you must posses confidence bordering on narcissism. When everyone else is telling you that you are great and you keep getting promoted, you start to listen to that and start thinking that its all true. Being humble and having strong self-awareness are important qualities to being a good leader and making sound decisions.

What Can You Do? Arm Yourself

Experienced climbers taking on a high altitude climb will take as many oxygen containers as possible. They will also acclimate themselves to the atmosphere by spending time at various levels of elevation to get the body used to the lack of oxygen. You can equip yourself in similar fashion.


Yes, get out. Get out of your office. Leave the c-suite floor. Talk to someone that doesn’t wear a suit everyday. Talk to the people that report to your manager’s managers. Talk to the people at the lowest level of your organization. Spend a day with people doing work that is two or levels removed from your day-to-day work.

When you arrive? Listen. Don’t defend. Listen. Take notes. And act where you can.

What Else?

I believe that leaders can be successful without becoming soulless, money-sucking, corporate dictators. The key is to continue educating yourself , surround yourself with people who will argue with you and be humble.

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