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Books for those in ministry organizations who desire to take their leadership, teams, governance, and ministry effectiveness to the next level.

24 Oct '13

Leadership altitude: What altitude are you flying at?

Posted by T.J. Addington in Healthy leaders, leadership

Choosing intentionality is really about the ability to fly at the appropriate altitude and stay there. This is all about understanding our priorities and the kinds of issues we need to deal with at our level of leadership. It is a key difference between people who develop deep influence and those who do not.


Our altitude makes a difference because it determines whether or not we are able to pay attention to the issues that we must pay attention to or whether we allow ourselves to become distracted – dipping down to a lower altitude than we should – and in the process disempowering others and wasting precious time and opportunity.

I often tell my staff that if I am going to lead well, I need to be able to fly at 50,000 feet, where I can see the horizon from all directions, think, plan, strategize and consider the macro issues or organization faces. No one else will do that for me. So if I don’t do it, it won’t get done.

Flying at that altitude I often see what is happening at lower altitudes (where various levels of leadership live and lead) and there is always the temptation to dip down and try to deal with issues at lower altitudes personally. Whenever I do that, I disempower others and I involve myself with issues that I really don’t need to deal with.

Every time I choose to dip down and deal with issues that others can deal with I lose altitude in my own leadership that costs me time and energy. This is why I challenged a ministry leader not to get pulled into meetings where he was not needed. When he dips down from 50,000 feet to 10,000 feet, he is both compromising his own responsibilities and he is pushing into issues that belong to someone at the 10,000 foot level. This disempowers others who have been tasked at that level.

I often talk to pastoral staff whose senior leader loves to dip down at inopportune times and “fine tune” what they are doing. In one case, a senior leaders who lives by the seat of his pants would breeze in on a Friday afternoon, look at the service plan and frequently make changes to fit his desires. What he just did was to disempower the staff member responsible for that service. That meeting should have taken place weeks before and then he should have let the worship leader make the decisions he or she needed to make.

Part of my intentionality is to fly at the attitude I need to fly at and empower others to fly at their altitude – and as much as possible not to interfere with their work. Because I have a monthly check in with each of my reports, we have a chance to dialogue with one another over critical issues but my job as their leader is not to redo their work but to enable them to accomplish their responsibilities and help them fly at their correct altitude.

If I fly at 50,000 feet, my senior team flies at 40,000 feet, giving leadership in their own areas. On their teams are folks who fly at various altitudes in order to fulfill their unique ministry roles. Pilots that decide to fly at an altitude not assigned to them run the risk of crashing with a plane at a different altitude. The same is true for leaders who violate their or others responsibilities. A crash often occurs and influence is lost.

This happened to one of my leadership staff years ago who regularly chose to descend to a lower altitude and essentially get into issues that he should not have. In the process, he lost the trust of those who were tasked with those issues because they felt violated, not in the loop and saddled with the implications of decisions he made at altitudes he should not have been at. Others had to live with the impact of his decisions, yet they had not had any voice in the decision itself.

Knowing the altitude we ought to be flying at and empowering others to fly at their altitude with minimal interference is a part of our intentionality – and the intentionality of others. If frequent interference is needed we either have someone who is not competent to fly at their altitude or we have not learned how to empower others appropriately.

One of the secrets to being able to fly at your altitude is to build a team around you that can take care of issues that you are frankly not good at. I am really terrible at small details: they take me too much time, fall between the cracks and slow me down. Having an administrative assistant who loves details and gets them done in a heartbeat is huge for me. The better the team we can build around us the more possible it is for us to stay in our sweet spot and fly at our correct altitude.