I’m vacationing this week in Estes Park, Colorado. Estes Park sits in a valley surrounded by the Rocky Mountain National Forest. The picture I posted with this article is my view from the deck outside The Historic Crag’s Lodge. Built in 1914, Crag’s Lodge is a rustic, mountain lodge complete with creaky floors, wood panel walls, and tree-branch furniture. The elevation of Estes Park is 7522 ft. Where I live in Minnesota the elevation is 906 ft—putting us a mile and a quarter higher than what I’m used to. If you’ve ever changed elevations in a short period of time, you know that it can take a few days to adjust.
A couple days ago, we were in town and I decided to jog back to the Lodge to get something I needed from our room. Crag’s Lodge sits on the southern edge of town, nestled into the side of Prospect Mountain. I exercise four or five days a week, so I felt confident about a gentle hike-jog out of town and up the winding road to the Lodge.
I underestimated the effect on my body of being 6,616 ft higher than what it is used to. At higher elevation, the lower air pressure makes it significantly more difficult for oxygen to get into my bloodstream. God designed our bodies to accommodate this; over time the body will create extra red blood cells and capillaries. Lungs will also increase in size to facilitate the transfer of oxygen from air to blood!
However, having only been here a couple days, my body didn’t have time to adapt. I was quickly winded and had to slow down to a fast walk. As my body worked for more air, I had the sensation of not being able to get enough oxygen. (If this is a little like what it feels like to have an asthma attack, I have great empathy for asthmatics!)
The good news was that I was not in danger nor in a hurry, but I quickly realized three things: 1) I was not fully prepared for physical exertion at this elevation, 2) I needed to adjust my expectations, and 3) getting help could be necessary in an extreme situation.
Leading organizations is often like taking a trip to higher elevation. You are removed from your comfort zone where things and people are familiar, the procedures are known, and the outcomes are relatively predictable. Your familiar practice and outcomes of leadership will not work exactly the same at the “new elevation.”
When you have the luxury of predicting a change in leadership context, you can also prepare in many ways. Prior to this trip, even though I knew I would be changing elevation, I didn’t do extra work to prepare my body. I certainly could have. There is plenty of information available to me about the biophysical problem of increased elevation and how to prepare for it.
When you know your leadership context is changing, prepare. Get information. Talk to others who know the situation. Train yourself mentally and develop the necessary skills. Practice.
You are an effective leader partly because you’ve had years of practice. Changing the context of leadership means that what you’ve been practicing may not apply as well. You may have to adjust expectations. I thought I could jog a mile or so without too much trouble. (I knew I would experience some increased exertion, but didn’t understand how much.) I knew I couldn’t turn the clock back and prepare for the experience, so I realized my expectations needed to change.
When your leadership context is taken to a higher altitude, don’t expect the high-caliber results you’re used to. Give yourself some grace and a chance to work your way back up to excellence. Help set others’ expectations of your leadership results, too.
Sometimes, all the preparation and adjusted expectations in the world aren’t enough. You did your homework. You prepared diligently. You adjusted your own expectations and the expectations of others. It turns out to not be enough. The change in elevation had a greater impact than you could plan for. It’s perfectly acceptable to get help. A humble leader knows that enlisting others actually increases their leadership influence.
There’s one more point I want to make about a change in your leadership context. The change in elevation from Minnesota to Colorado is pretty significant. A similar change in leadership context should get your attention and spur you to prepare. However, what about a smaller change in leadership context?
It’s pretty clear that changing from one organization to another, or one industry to another, or one location to another requires preparations, changed expectations, and need for help. What about the subtle change in leadership from one team to another, or even from one employee to another.
My closing point is that the same three techniques (prepare, adjust, get help) are just as necessary in subtle changes of leadership. Don’t let subtle changes in leadership context trick you into complacency!
Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.
Photo by author.