Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

First published May 17, 2020

Leading From 5000 Feet 

It's gonna be a long road back to the '30,000 feet' level of leadership - the point where we can plan effectively for the long-term.

But at least we're not still down at runway level, scrabbling just to get through the day and the week.

So, where, precisely, are we right now? 

Call it 'leading from 5,000 feet'. It's hard. It's uncomfortable. But it's a vital next step, and it's important we get it right - otherwise we'll stall out and never get back to anything close to normalcy.

In today's video, I talk about leading from 5,000 feet, and lay out five principles to succeed at it:

Please leave me your questions and observations in the comments below!

(psst:  you can also download a pdf of the transcript )

Running time: 07' 36"     Don't forget to leave your comments below!

Read Video Transcript

it feels like in the last couple of weeks most leaders have

begun to get some elevation
. And what I mean by that is that

while we are nowhere near in a position where we can lead

from 30,000 feet - you know with a long time horizon, able

to think strategically in the long term - while we're nowhere

near that, we're no longer down at runway level, working in

the trenches, just doing triage, trying to get through the

next day, barely even able to see towards the end of the day,

the end of the week.

We're sort of at a what I'd call a 5000 feet level right

now. Folks have got at least some perspective into the next

couple of months.

Some folks have got a clear view for a quarter, some even

for quarters three and four. But it's a strange and slightly

awkward place to be, because as leaders, we're used to

having that 30,000 foot view - being able to think strategically,

plan in the medium and long term, and we're also typically

pretty good at getting down at runway level, getting our hands

dirty - ust helping get through the day. But this strange

sort of five thousand foot level,

well, it's just that it's a little strange. I likened it the

other day to that part of the airplane takeoff where you

haven't got through the cloud cover yet.

You can still feel that you're ascending but it doesn't feel

like you've reached anywhere near a cruise level. And so in

being here, at this five thousand foot level,

it's clearly an important that we use this time correctly,

because if we don't think the right way now, we're not going

to get to 10,000 feet, [let alone]15 20 25 30 thousand feet.

So I just want to lay out a few principles from what I've

seen, not just now but in similar times in the past (all

the caveats about 'similar' -

I've said them often enough to just asterisk that

this is not similar, but you know what

I mean.)

And the first thing is this, and I've been experiencing this

a lot with my coaching clients over the last couple of weeks

forgive yourself.

You know, give yourself a break. Almost every leader.

I've talked to

feels bad about something. "I missed something."

"I didn't pivot early enough here."

"I had to let people go." There are many of my clients who feel bad

because they're actually doing well, and their business is

thriving, their church is growing, and I just want to say look,

cut yourself some slack.

Nobody saw this coming this way.

If we did we wouldn't be here, and it's not going to help your

folks if you're leading them from a place of guilt, so just

give yourself a break and let's move forward.

The second principle is my suggestion is to plan for quarter

three, and if you can, through quarter four against two

extremes. In blunt detail, that means planning for a fierce

second wave of Coronavirus.

And the other plan is for that not to happen, and for the

economy to begin to react to that having been the only wave.

Now this is not a political statement.

It's not even a scientific statement.

I'm just making an economic statement that my recommendation

is that you plan against those two extremes because you'll

be executing somewhere in between, and you need to be able

to know how to tack

between those two extremes.

It's highly unlikely that either of those two extremes

(let's hope) will happen.

I'm strongly of the opinion that we'll be somewhere in between

in between where, we'll have patchy responses and localized

flare-ups and we need to be prepared for that.

The third thing is for 2021 now is the time to run some scenario

plans. Not to put together detailed.

plans - we can start to do that in quarter three, maybe

even if we're fortunate in to Quarter 4, but now is the time to

start to run some scenarios - what ifs. Put together four or five

of them, get a team of trusted people around you (more on that

in a second) and just play it out.

You don't need to produce a written plan at this point - to

do so, I think, might be futile just right now - who knows

where we'll be - in two weeks

from now

I could be recommending that - the half-life of information on

our time horizons is very short at the minute.

But for right now just game some scenarios out for 2021.

Now, my fourth point is a caveat to that which is this: This is

not a good time to be in general musing out loud.

You don't want all of your folks to watch your inner dialogue

right now.

So that means in order to do your planning you need to get

a trusted group of people with whom you can do that

without spooking everybody else.

Everybody wants some clear direction right now and particularly

for those of you who are Visionary leaders in our VOPS model,

we talk to think - that's how you will work stuff out, and

you need to talk with people about it, maybe even argue about

it, but make sure that you're doing that with a group of

trusted advisors.

It's even more helpful if they're not directly involved in your

own organization, though.

you may well need some of your senior people to bring their

subject matter expertise, but keep that group as small as

possible until you're beginning to see the outlines of something

that you can be sure about. And the final thing -

the fifth thing - is this: Don't descend.

Now what I mean by that is that we've begun to get a little

bit of upward velocity so to speak and I'm talking not

in economic terms, of an economic return, I'm talking in

terms of the elevation from which we can see forward.

Like I say, we're at about a sort of a five thousand foot

level at the moment.

You should not be still nailing stuff down

at runway level, but you will have pitched in - you'll have

been doing things that you weren't doing before, that you

took back on - maybe you just jumped in and helped anywhere

you can. Now is the time to start to move away from that if

you're the leader of your organization, because you need to

begin to be able to think strategically, and to lead strategically.

Now, I know that particularly for some of the smaller organizations

out there, you just may not be in a position to do that.

You might have had to cut back so far that you're going to

have to continue to do some things that you thought you would

not be doing round about about now in your career.

But even if that's the case, you need to start putting the

Lego bricks in place to begin to keep your elevation - in terms

of the time horizon that you're planning for - leveling upwards.

So, don't descend.

I'm Les McKeown, please scroll down leave me some comments.

Tell me what your thoughts are about leading at 5,000 feet.

Let's make it a great week.


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  1. Good information, and would suggest that leaders find time for self care. We all needed to react on the fly and figure things out, when a lot of staff were running home to family, as leaders needed to provide direction in a new situation. Therefore a little self care time before the next wave or back to full operation is needed whatever way the road runs.

  2. Les, thank you for these short videos. I have walked away from each one of them with an important learning.

    Today, the “scenario” planning really struck a chord. This will allow us to embrace the innovation, movement into a space that we create that will ensure our medium and long-term future, that you discussed previously. Theme based or scenario planning will enable the prioritization of our broader initiatives, and help to move us from the fixed feature sets that guide most planning. This in turn should allow us to acknowledge and deal with the increasing uncertainty of the future since our planning focus can be on the “Now”, “Next”, and “Later”.

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