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Posted: October 01, 2011

Life at C-level: The air is thinner up there

Here's how to avoid a rapid descent

Todd Ordal

When I started flying high-performance aircraft at high altitudes many years ago, my friend and I decided to conduct a test. Above 12,500 feet, you're required to have oxygen (okay, nitpicker pilots ... between 12,500 feet and 14,000 feet, you can noodle around for half an hour without it).

We took a non-pressurized airplane to 17,500 feet (the maximum altitude at which you can fly before someone from air traffic control wants to be very involved in your life) and took turns flying without oxygen for quite a while to see what impact it had.

The effect was gradual but quite noticeable. It varies from person to person, but the typical response at this altitude (which has only half the atmosphere of sea level) is to turn blue, get really stupid and fall asleep. For some, this sequence happens quite quickly, so don't try this at home.

Ascending an organization to a senior level, particularly the C-suite, has the same impact as flying at altitude without assistance. No, you won't turn blue, but you'll have less oxygen and be prone to do stupid things that can lead to a rapid descent. In fact, you'll have less time and fewer peers, and you won't hear the truth very often.

Like a talented athlete, you'll be told how good you are. Many people will want to be around you and will tell you what you want to hear. Are your jokes really funny? Are those strategic ideas that you're about to implement really brilliant?

You'll eventually succumb when you start to breathe your own exhaust and fall asleep with the controls in your hands. Just like when a pilot crashes, the crew and passengers will take the ride down with you (a few smart ones might have brought along parachutes).

So how can you avoid this? Put on your mask! Find a way to get the input you need, not the input you want. If the people you're around the most have also been flying at high altitudes for some time, make sure they aren't breathing the same bad air before you take their advice on anything.

What are you doing to make sure you're getting the oxygen you need?
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Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at,  303-527-0417 or

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Readers Respond

Your experiment was certainly risky, but made a great point. I love the analogy of ascending the corporate ladder to flying at high altitudes. How many high-level execs are up their breathing their own exhaust? By Julie Hansen on 2011 02 15

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