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Leadership Forum: Altitude exposure

July 28, 2023 
By Matt Pegg

Many of us aspire to move into increasingly senior leadership positions, and ultimately, to be the top leader in our organization. Being in these high-altitude leadership roles is an awesome yet daunting responsibility. I know many leaders who, shortly after being appointed or promoted, find themselves wondering if they have made a mistake. How is it possible for a leader to perform well and produce solid results at the operational leadership level, and then falter once they move into a senior leadership role? The problem may well be altitude exposure.

The individual weaknesses, flaws, and limitations that we all possess become increasingly visible and exposed as we climb higher on the organizational chart. Oftentimes, the first thing subjected to increasing scrutiny as we climb the ladder is our behaviour.

As a leader climbs, they increasingly operate under a high-powered microscope and spotlight, and their behaviour will be scrutinized and criticized more heavily than ever before. Things that may have been accepted, ignored, and even condoned by your former peers, will quickly fuel the fires of criticism and public debate when you become the leader. This altitude exposure continues to increase exponentially as you move into executive posts. Aspiring leaders need to be honest with themselves about whether or not they will be able to thrive in their role, especially when a giant spotlight is illuminating their behavioural choices.

The decisive test for behavioural exposure is simply to ask ourselves if we would be comfortable reading about whatever it is we are about to do, on the front page of the newspaper, seeing it on the evening news or as the top post on our social media feeds. If that possibility concerns us, then we should be choosing alternate behaviour.


Using the fire chief position as a point of reference, I want to share this important truth: Many people want to “be” the fire chief. However, few of them truly want to assume the responsibilities and accountabilities that come with being in the role. There is absolute truth to the notion that it is lonely at the top. In my role, I go through every day having to know things that I would rather not know, so that others can be shielded from unnecessary distraction, pressure, and nastiness. This is true of any executive role, including fire chief, CEO, city manager and beyond.

Before you put yourself in a position of increased altitude exposure, ensure that you are truly willing to take on the duties, responsibilities, and challenges of the role that you seek.

My good friend and former colleague, Tony Bavota, often explained that criticism is the privilege of leadership. Those are profound and wise words of advice from an experienced and savvy leader. Anyone who isn’t willing and prepared to accept that criticism is an undeniable reality for leaders, is destined for disappointment, and potentially, failure.

There are few opportunities more rewarding than being a leader within a strong, high-performance team that delivers exceptional results. Conversely, enduring the exposure that comes with being in a role that does not align well with your interests, competencies or abilities will be both excruciating and devastating. As you consider what is next for you, make certain that you actually want to do the job that comes with the position you seek, and that you are not simply pursuing the title, salary or perceived status that may come with the role. Make sure that you will still be excited about your job when you are being publicly criticized for the decisions and choices you make.

I have spoken to many newly promoted leaders who quickly find themselves alone in their office, realizing that they don’t even like the role they have achieved. Many miss the direct, hands-on results of their work and, unfortunately, some deeply regret their decision to take on the more senior position and must now live with those consequences.

There hasn’t been a single day since I was first promoted as a chief officer that I haven’t missed being hands-on, on the frontlines of emergency response. I miss being part of the crew, having my hands on the tools, and directly helping those who need our help the most. Fortunately, I love my role as fire chief and executive leader, the opportunity to coach and mentor, and the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives through leadership, more than I miss what came before.

One final thought – the only protection against career altitude sickness is self-awareness. As Benjamin Franklin so wisely cautioned the fire-threatened Philadelphia residents in 1736, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Indeed, it is.

Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. Contact Matthew at and follow him on Twitter at @ChiefPeggTFS.

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