Saturday, March 27, 2021

The Leadership Ceiling

Every leader creates a leadership ceiling.

Whether it’s...

  • the CEO of a $100 Billion corporation holding back thousands of employees through a command and control culture, 
  • the director of a small non-profit, who keeps the organization from achieving a broader vision,
  • an orchestra conductor who squelches the passion of talented musicians, 
  • a team leader squelching creativity, 
Every leader creates a leadership ceiling, above which the organization and its people cannot rise. There are high ceilings and low ceilings, but there’s always a ceiling.

  • It may be a “people” ceiling that limits the ability of the people within the organization to feel safe, empowered, and valued.
  • It may be a “process” ceiling that keeps the organization from collaborating and performing at its peak. 
  • Or it may be a “purpose” ceiling that limits the aspirations the organization hopes to accomplish.
For those of us who aren’t at the top of the power hierarchy, when the leadership ceiling is high, life is great. We find the freedom and support to bring our whole selves to our work, to innovate, collaborate, and implement great new solutions, and to participate in a purpose that is beyond what any of us can accomplish as individuals.

But when the ceiling is lower than we want it to be, the going gets rough. And we need to make choices.

When the leadership ceiling we work under is too low, we have 3 choices:

A. We can choose to work ABOVE the leadership ceiling. I love to think big and work boldly, so  this is my default choice. It’s what I do most frequently. It is how I have spent many years of my career.

And it always fails. 

When you work above the leadership ceiling, you may feel successful in the short term, but over time you’ll notice that you keep hitting the same barriers, progress you’ve already made deteriorates, and early optimism turns to debilitating cynicism.

B. We can choose to work BENEATH the leadership ceiling, BIDING our time. For many of us, in many situations, this is the best choice—the people directing us and paying our salaries typically expect us to work beneath their leadership ceiling. Or we can BAIL and leave the organization.

Since everyone, by definitions, works beneath leadership ceilings, let’s recognize that and get intentional about how we bring our full selves to that space. And let’s develop our judgement about when it’s time to BAIL and pursue our dreams under more enlightened leaders.

C. We can choose to try to CHANGE the Ceiling. This path is not for everyone. And it’s not for every situation. But for some people in some situations, this is the path to the greatest impact, success, and satisfaction.

Changing a leadership ceiling is not for the faint of heart. It requires intention, discipline, intuition, creativity, and perseverance. But when we make it work, we change the world.

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