Imagine building a long and positive track record as a leader. You’ve earned your stripes through hard work, persistence, and dedication. You have invested time creating opportunities to grow and develop people and organizations. You’ve made a real, positive, and enduring difference in the lives of those you’ve led. The organization and those around you are better off because of your leadership. You are at the top of your game.
Much of the excitement of leadership comes from the opportunities that leaders are able to identify, shape, and utilize. In a very real way, leaders are opportunity creators. One of my previous books, Leaders Open Doors, high-lights the central leadership responsibility of opening doors of opportunity for others. There is something completely energizing and gratifying about using your influence for the good of others. For this reason, leaders are constantly on the lookout for skill- stretching, spirit- stirring, and standard- raising opportunities— for the people they lead, and for themselves.
What happens when this excitement and fulfillment of creating opportunities begins to fade? When you’ve reached the top as a leader, what comes on the other side of all that success? Cresting.
What makes cresting so challenging for the seasoned leader is that there are fewer doors of opportunity to charge through. The fewer opportunities there are, the more uncomfortable the leader gets. The leader may feel acutely fearful or panicked. Time is running out! he may think. There were so many other things I’d hoped to accomplish, but I’m not going to be able to get them all done!
So common is this phenomenon that there’s even a term for it: Torschlusspanik. The word first appeared in the Middle Ages and is literally translated as “gate- closing panic.” In medieval times, when many European cities were enclosed fortresses, city residents would need to get back through the city gates by nightfall or risk getting locked out. The consequences of not getting through the gate on time could be serious, such as freezing to death, getting attacked by marauding thieves, or being eaten by wild animals!
As it relates to leadership, Torschlusspanik has an added dimension of melancholy, brought on by a pronounced fear of missing out. Soon the leader will be left outside the organization’s gates, part of its history but exiled from its future. All of the leader’s wonderful accomplishments pale in comparison to the infinite number of opportunities he or she will not experience.
So, yes, leaders open doors, but when the opportunities to do so start to close, they will feel less useful or important. Life is more vibrant and fulfilling inside the city walls than it is when you’re left outside as the sun is setting.
The transition of a leader’s career from the top of the crest to the other side can actually be a beautiful thing. This is the time when your wisdom is ripest, when the bulk of your legacy has been established, and when your influence has left a tangible and positive mark. At this stage of your leadership career, you are a leader in full.
What are some examples of when you “crested” past the top of your skill or expertise? What opportunities are you now facing that you fear are closing fast?