Leadership: Stalled at the Top

Once you reach the upper levels of management, failure becomes much easier. Find out why this is and what a leader can do to avoid stalling at the top in this article from Antony Bell, author of the new book Great Leadership.


When I first took flying lessons, I was required to learn how to avoid stalling the engine in a steep climb or at the apex of the climb, and what to do when it did. That’s a lesson more relevant than ever for today’s business leaders: How do you avoid stalling at the top?

Our Leader-Unfriendly Environment

It’s easier to fail in executive leadership positions than it used to be. Consider:

  • The expectations for business performance have never been as high. These expectations are unsustainable, persistent, and fueled by an investor population no longer limited to institutional investors and market analysts.
  • The level of scrutiny has never been as intense, whether from the government, shareholders, customers, employees, or the community. Moreover, public confidence in corporate leadership has never been so low.
  • The scope of business has never been as broad. The tension between global expansion and local relevance has never been as acute.
  • The pace of innovation has never been as rapid. Human knowledge by some estimates is doubling every two years.
  • Organizational structures have never been as complex. More and more people report to fewer and fewer leaders, who have less and less time to think about their bigger and bigger roles.
  • The honeymoon has never been as brief. Time is not on the side of business leaders, and there isn’t much room for mistakes.

How Leaders Handicap Themselves

Despite these challenges, there are a number of ways in which leaders don’t help themselves.

  • Leaders tend to operate from intuition and experience. While both can serve a leader well, neither is infallible. Intuition cannot compensate for a leader’s blind spots, and experience is a tutor with a limited perspective.
  • Leaders tend to become leaders because they are technically competent. But the technical competence that makes them effective at one level often makes them less effective at the next.
  • Leaders tend to operate at two levels below their current level. In part because of the previous point, they often maintain the mindset of the level where they last demonstrated mastery — usually two positions back.
  • Few leaders are taught to lead. Few are taught formally; academic institutions focus more on the organization of work than on the application of leadership. MBA’s teach only a narrow portion of leadership. Many corporations offer in-house programs, but few combine strong teaching with in-depth coaching. Systematic feedback is rare. Only a fortunate few have the informal input of a particularly effective boss or mentor.
  • Leaders tend to stop learning in midlife. By the time leaders hit their forties, many rely on their previous knowledge, with a shallow commitment to ongoing self-education and self-development as a leader.

Avoiding the Stall with the Right Habits

Avoiding the stall at the top–or coping with it when it happens–is much easier if leaders develop the right habits. Here’s what the best leaders have in common:

  • They are ferocious learners. They are constantly reading, constantly asking questions, and stretching their thinking.
  • They are disciplined learners. They get their thoughts on paper and capture them in notebooks. They make sure they don’t lose them.
  • They avidly seek feedback, because they know that stalling is often a function of a lack of self-awareness–not just their weaknesses, but also their strengths. They solicit feedback both formally and informally, and they make sure their leadership behaviors are calibrated by the leadership perceptions they generate around them. Too many emperors in the marketplace are walking around naked because people aren’t telling them. And they aren’t being told because they aren’t asking.
  • They pay attention to character. Some leaders stall because of issues of integrity, honesty, dependability, and consistency. Watch for the tendency to let your ego erode your humility. The further up you are in the power hierarchy, the more damaging are such character compromises.

None of this guarantees that you’ll avoid stalling. But it will most likely keep you from falling.

Antony Bell is author of Great Leadership: What It Is and What It Takes in a Complex World (Davies Black, 2006), a teacher at the Daniel School of Management, University of South Carolina, and managing partner of LeaderDevelopment Inc. (www.leaderdevelopmentinc.com).

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