Like Mountaineers, Leaders Need New Challenges to Grow

Reaching a business peak or audacious goal feels great, but leaders need to stay attuned to what the next S-curve should be. Stopping at the top will stagnate you as a leader.

By Whitney Johnson January 12, 2022

Smart growth requires knowing when you are about to complete a growth cycle and having the courage to embrace a new climb. You are a mountaineer.

View from the Top

As current thinking goes, if you set a goal, it should be audacious. Bold. It should challenge you to muster all the mental, physical and emotional training you can. Be prepared for a lot of ups and downs. You reach a peak only to go down the mountain and up another. But with each peak there are new vistas and new beauty you haven't before experienced.

It is possible for human beings to stop learning and growing, but it is not possible for them to be content with it. "The entire purpose of the human brain," says neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert, "is to produce movement." You may have experienced this discontent.

The Death Zone

Learning is the oxygen of human growth. When learning diminishes, so do we. Learning is essential to our continued, particularly in adulthood, when the sponge-like mindset we had as children hardens into a more fixed range of assumptions. Unless we engage in new learning opportunities, neural plasticity succumbs to neural rigidity. Precarious as it is, the peak of an S curve can—ironically—feel like a good place to stop. Getting here was hard. We may be tempted to rest on our learning. But leaving may prove difficult if we linger, and our learning-hungry brain begins to starve.

Boredom is a threat at the top, but so is regression. You might start doing poorly what you learned to do well. The novel information you worked so hard to obtain, chunk by chunk, is already delivered, integrated and anchored in the vast neural circuitry of the brain. As you moved up the S curve, you fine-tuned your brain's predictive model, detecting a "just right" degree of novelty: enough to challenge, but not to overwhelm. This met the natural craving for reward via dopamine. That's gratifying at first, but less so as time passes. When the predictive model running in your brain is accurate and what you expect to happen happens, that means no more dopamine rewards for taking a chance and making the right call.

It's true that stagnation can happen at any stage along the curve. Some S curves just don't offer the opportunity we thought they would. Progress is slow, erratic or nonexistent. Maybe progress abruptly ends, shy of our objective. But stagnation is most likely to occur at the top of a learning curve. We anchor, we celebrate, we hope the party never ends.

It's understandable. Who doesn't want to be the life of the party, especially when it's your party? As you detected patterns in your learning, your receptors became more sensitive to your serotonin levels, which improved your mood. Cortisol levels declined in sync with lower stress. The decision to continue to climb again, to become an explorer anew, could mean that instead of pleasure, your brain feels pain. Why stop the party to return to that?

Because even celebrating gets tedious after a while, and the party can't last anyway. All the good feelings resulted from the momentum of the sweet spot. Once we reach mastery, it's only a matter of time before we are bored and restless. We need another sweet spot, and that first requires the challenge of a new launch point.

The CEO Cycle

A fascinating 2019 study titled "The CEO Life Cycle" describes a pattern of growth, stagnation and possible regrowth over time. Tracking the year-by-year financial performance of more than 700 S&P 500 chief executives, the study reveals distinct phases of job performance, beginning with the "honeymoon" period and ending with the "golden years."

Between honeymoons and golden years, however, CEOs will face significant obstacles. Those that survive to year 11, when the golden years typically begin, must survive the death zone of success first. Attaining the peak of a CEO S curve, which is, on average, in year six, is "often followed by a time of prolonged stagnation and mediocre results." The plateau becomes a precipice: many CEOs will quit or be fired.

CEOs experience golden years only when they deliberately and repeatedly move to the launch point of new S curves: "CEOs who survive the complacency trap typically go on to experience some of their best value-creating years."

When You Get Pushed Off the Mountain

Notwithstanding intense preparation before the ascent, mountain climbers can be thwarted by accident, injury, illness or sudden changes in weather that make it dangerous to proceed. They may not always reach the summit, but they are still mountaineers.

Similarly, unexpected events can knock us off our S curve climbs before we reach the pinnacle, even when we still have plenty of learning potential. We've reached a summit, but not the summit. Layoffs or firings, a business that fails, personal challenges such as divorce, illness or loss of a key sponsor or loved one can force us to abandon a once-promising climb. Many of these abrupt, involuntary endings, so difficult to navigate at the time, become opportunities for greater growth than we could have imagined. We are still mountaineers.

Mountaineers may give up a summit, but you don't give up. You may get booted down the current trail, but you don't stop hitting trails. You are resilient, and that resilience is often accumulated on the path.

The Thrill of the Climb

It's not the peak elevation of your S curve that matters. It's not about whether your mountain is the stuff of legend—an Everest, a Denali. It's about being the guide on your own smart growth journey. You choose the mountain that means the most to you personally. Only you can know which mountains to climb.

Smart growth means getting off the mountaintop before the universe gives you the nudge, if you can control that timing. It requires having a growth mindset and being open to possibilities outside your norm.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from SMART GROWTH: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company by Whitney Johnson. Copyright 2022 Whitney Johnson. All rights reserved.

Whitney Johnson is CEO of human capital consultancy Disruption Advisors, host of the podcast  Disrupt Yourself, and an award-winning author. Her most recent book is SMART GROWTH: How to Grow Your People to Grow Your Company.

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