Image Credit: Aviation Performance Solutions

The Expectations Stall

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This post is longer and more detailed than what I normally publish here. Hopefully, you will enjoy learning something different, which will give a deeper insight into the more familiar, and therefore make this post worth the extra time. Grab yourself a cup of coffee and get comfy…

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last year about the way Expectations, Performance, and Reality all intersect. It is pretty commonplace for leaders in any type of organization to easily talk about the connection between setting high expectations and maintaining high performance. The internet is littered with articles and the virtual shelves of Amazon are full of books all explaining the connection between the two. Often overlooked (or even intentionally ignored), however, is the role Reality plays into this equation.

When I first started writing this post a year ago (yes, really!), this dynamic was evident in the news stories about the scandal that had enveloped Wells Fargo, one of the largest retail banks in America: an organization warped by the pressure of unreasonable sales goals, resulting in widespread abuse by managers and fraud by employees to meet those expectations. This despite the fact that the bank’s official stance, policies, and even employee discipline said these practices were not acceptable. So, why did they continue to occur? Was it just a matter of immoral employees disregarding the rules and values that their employer put in place? Not exactly. You can’t spend five minutes looking into the news about this scandal without coming across statements like this from former employees:

“They warned us about this type of behavior and said, ‘You must report it,’ but the reality was that people had to meet their goals,” said Khalid Taha, a former Wells Fargo personal banker who resigned in July. “They needed a paycheck.”

This fact may seem rather obvious and even mundane. It is, simply put, reality. Yet, all too often, these mundane and obvious aspects of reality can get lost — whether by being forgotten or ignored — when decisions are made as to where an organization should go, how high it should fly, and how fast it should move to get there. After thinking about this a lot over the past couple of years — including countless conversations with others featuring crude white board illustrations of the principles fleshed out in better detail below — I’m here to make the case that ignoring the Reality variable in the Expectations and Performance equation is a dangerous mistake.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s turn away from the world of  retail banking and to the skies where airplanes defy gravity. To really get what one has to do with the other, a short primer on the aerodynamics of flight is in order first.

Credit: Robert Noel (

This is the Antonov An-225, known as the “Mryia.” With a wingspan nearly as wide as a football field is long, and a maximum takeoff weight of 640 tons (1.28 million pounds), it is the largest aircraft in the world. At 276 feet long, this Ukrainian monster is over twice as long as the distance of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. To witness the Mryia take flight is to straddle the thin line that separates the scientific marvels of engineering from the realm of supernatural miracles.


Yet, for all of the complexity in its design and the sheer scale of this winged wonder, the principles of how it flies are exactly the same as for this little number:

Cincinnati Kid2

Credit: Laurie Clark

Dubbed the “Cincinnati Kid,” this plane is a 1947 Navion L-17 belonging to a friend of mine. At about 1/10 the size of the Mryia, the Navion and its 300 hp engine powering a single nose propeller is a relative gnat compared to the hulking enormity of the Mryia, which boasts six jet engines pumping out almost 52,000 lbf of thrust. Yet, for the pilots of each of these aircraft, and every other winged aircraft in existence, there is a rule that applies itself ruthlessly without regard to the airplane’s size, speed, altitude, or value:

Exceed the Critical Angle of Attack, and you will stall.


If you are the pilot and do not correct this situation, you will crash and the NTSB Aviation Accident Report will label your fate “Aerodynamic Stall and Loss of Control.” (As is the case with this recent crash report, in which 6 people died.) In other words: pilot error.

In a world full of variables, this is a constant. Here’s how it works.

(Buckle up: it’s about to get nerdy.)

There are a myriad of details pilots must keep track of to safely fly an aircraft, but fundamentally everything boils down to an equation for how Lift is generated.

Lift equation

Among the variables in this equation, there are two things that the pilot can control while in flight: The Angle of Attack and Velocity. Let’s examine each of these two variables in turn.

Angle of Attack

To understand Angle of Attack, let’s start with the basics: For both the Mryia and the Navion, flight occurs because of the way the airfoil (the fancy name for the shape of the wing) interacts with the air. As the thrust of the engines generates forward momentum, air begins hitting the airfoil and passing above and below it. Because slower-moving air has a higher air pressure than faster-moving air, the asymmetrical shape of the airfoil splits the air in a way that changes the relative speed of the air passing over and under the wing surfaces. The resulting difference in the air’s speed of flow causes changes in the relative air pressures, which then produces lift. This is known as Bernoulli’s Principle, named after the 18th century Swiss mathematician and physicist, Daniel Bernoulli.

(Yep, this guy figured this stuff out in the 1730’s working with fluids, but the principle applies the same to both liquids and gases. This is why submarines use hydrofoils as dive planes to control the ship’s depth in a body of water just as an airplane uses airfoils to control altitude in a body of air. The principle also works in reverse: flip the airfoil over, and downforce is created instead of lift, which is what keeps F1 and Indy cars seemingly bolted to the track despite their high speeds and ridiculous turning performance.)

Simple enough, right?

However, things get interesting when you start looking more closely at how the air hits the airfoil in the first place.

(Hang on: the nerdy details are about to get a little bumpy as we encounter some geometry. I will leave out some detail and ignore some technical distinctions for sake of simplicity.)

The direction that the air hits the wings is known as relative air flow, and it moves along the same line as the aircraft’s direction of travel, known as the flight path (only in the opposite direction, of course). That air flow is measured against the straight line known as the wing chord that geometrically connects the airfoil’s leading edge with it’s tailing edge. Angle of attack, then, is the name for the all important angle between these two lines:

AoA diagram dark2

In level flight, this is understood easily enough, as the plane’s nose (and, more or less, the wing chord) is aligned with the direction the plane is actually moving. However, these two things are not always the same. They are independent characteristics of the plane’s flight that the pilot has to be aware of at all times. This becomes most obvious to passengers and observers alike during landing, when the aircraft’s nose is pitched up even as the aircraft is in a descending flight path, like so:

Shuttle landing AoA

These two concepts — Bernoulli’s Principle and the Angle of Attack — work together to keep winged aircraft aloft in the air. With sufficient thrust and regardless of flight path or pitch angle, the wings will continue to do their job of generating lift so long as the pilot keeps the aircraft flying within the safe angle of attack.

The Critical Angle of Attack, then, is the point at which the airfoil and the air can no longer produce lift. When the angle of attack increases beyond that critical boundary, a stall occurs. This is not a stall in the mechanical sense — the engines continue to operate just fine. Exceeding the critical angle of attack puts the aircraft into an aerodynamic stall, as the angle of the airfoil is too steep for the air to “stick” to the wing and generate lift as a result. You can see the dramatic effect of an aerodynamic stall in these wind tunnel photos:



Because of the dangers of pushing an aircraft beyond the critical angle of attack, the best way to quickly increase lift and fly higher is not to pitch the plane upwards. Rather, it is to go faster. By increasing the velocity that the air is hitting the airfoil, more air passes over it each moment. Because it is the air passing over the wing that produces lift, more lift is generated when more air passes over it. High speed is what makes things leave the ground at takeoff, which is good if you’re piloting an airplane facing a drop into the ocean at the end of the flight deck … and bad if you’re racing a car down the drag strip.

Of course, this only works up to a point: there is a limit to how much thrust an airplane’s engines can produce.

In sum, and understanding that this only scratches the surface of the variables and complexities at work in flying an airplane: safe flying requires enough lift to overcome gravity, and among the several variables involved in creating lift, the pilot has the ability to influence two of them — Angle of Attack and Velocity.

When a plane’s orientation moves beyond the critical angle of attack, whether due to a loss of thrust that changes the flight path, or because of a steep increase in the pitch angle of the wings, two things occur:

  1. the air hitting the wings past the critical angle of attack breaks free from the wing’s surface, inducing an aerodynamic stall;
  2. the plane ceases to be a majestic flying vehicle and becomes a dangerous falling object.
plane stall

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At that moment, the pilot must take action in response to the stall to restore lift to the wings while there is still enough altitude to pull up safely. But how?

The voice of Instinct offers an immediate answer in the primal, adrenaline-soaked shrieking of the “lizard brain” that knows that Falling = Death. As Fear runs its icy tendrils down the pilot’s spine, the amygdala simultaneously tries to short-circuit all other distracting brain functions so that its demands are obeyed immediately and forcefully: “PULL UP!!”

The voice of Training, on the other hand, knows that listening to the fears of Instinct is a certain death sentence. Instead, the voice of Training demands that the pilot ignore the cold pit in her stomach and remember the one rule that must be followed when in an aerodynamic stall: Reduce the angle of attack. The quickest and simplest way to do that is to do the opposite of what Instinct demands:

You have to push the stick forward and lower the nose into the fall.


With the hardcore nerd stuff now behind us, let’s put these pieces together and see what they can teach us about managing Performance, Expectations, and Reality, using the story of Wells Fargo to illustrate things.

Like the Mryia discussed above, Wells Fargo is a behemoth of an organization: huge, massively complex, but capable of extraordinary things. Just as there are a myriad of differences between the Mryia and my friend’s Navion, so, too, there are a million things that make giant corporations like Wells Fargo different from smaller businesses and organizations. Even so, the laws of the physics of flight govern the performance of the Mryia and the Navion equally … and the laws of human behavior govern the performance of organizations large and small as well.

Think of an organization like Wells Fargo as a plane itself, and the variables of flight as follows:

  • High Altitude = Goal: Whatever an organization defines as the destination it is trying to get to
  • Wing Chord = Expectations: the direction the organization is aiming itself to go
  • Flight Path = Performance: the direction in which the organization is actually moving
  • Thrust = Energy: whether thought of as resources invested, productive capacity, or creative output, this is the kinetic activity an organization puts into getting where it’s trying to go

Before showing how these dynamics played out in the Wells Fargo scandal, a bit of key background about Wells is needed first.

It’s Friday, October 3, 2008, and the American economy is in the midst of a massive financial vapor lock:

It is in this tumultuous environment that Wells Fargo made their surprising Friday announcement: it was buying Wachovia Bank, keeping the latter from a certain bankruptcy of its own while making Wells Fargo a truly national bank, vaulting it to the status as the largest bank in America as measured by retail locations (over 6,500 locations) with total deposits of $713 billion, and the fourth-largest by total assets ($1.37 trillion). The most surprising part was the price Wells Fargo agreed to pay. Earlier in the week, Citibank had already reached an agreement to buy Wachovia’s banking operation for $2 billion, so long as the FDIC agreed to take ownership of Wachovia’s toxic debts. Instead, Wells Fargo stepped in and pledged upwards of $15 billion to buy Wachovia without the assistance of the federal government as a toxic asset safety net.

In the midst of what appeared to possibly be Financial Armageddon, the leadership team of Wells Fargo made a tremendous gamble in order to level up to the Big Boy Bank Table. In the years that followed, it would be their job to make sure the gamble worked.

The pressure to make good on that bet hit a key milestone three years later, as the assimilation of Wachovia’s retail banking footprint was complete. At the end of the day when the Wells Fargo-Wachovia merger was announced, Wells Fargo’s stock had closed at $34.56. Three years later, Wells Fargo’s stock price was down 33%, closing on October 3, 2011, at $23.18. Comparatively, that wasn’t too bad: Citigroup, the bank that Wells Fargo drastically outbid for Wachovia, suffered an eye-watering stock price decline of -88% over that same period. But if you’re the CEO and senior leadership team manning the controls on the flight deck of Wells Fargo as it undertook the largest banking merger in history, answering a loss of 1/3 of your company’s share price with “yeah, but you should see the other guys!” doesn’t tend to fly for long.

With the last of Wachovia’s banking regions now fully remade in the Wells Fargo image, it was time for Well’s Fargo’s performance to start reflecting all of the added value that the merger was supposed to deliver to its shareholders.

It was time to pitch the plane’s nose up and start aiming for higher expectations.

The cultural tones set by the leaders — one of “relentless pressure” and “wildly unrealistic sales targets” — filtered down through the layers of Wells Fargo’s org chart. The pressure on the leaders to succeed resulted in them pulling back on the yoke and aiming the nose of Wells Fargo higher and higher. Soon, Wells Fargo began to enjoy the rising stock price that came with the rising revenues produced by those expectations … and so the expectations were elevated even further.

Probably not coincidentally, that’s when the fraudulent shenanigans began:

Wells Fargo has been accused by federal regulators of illegal activity on a stunning level. Authorities say employees at the bank secretly created millions of unauthorized bank and credit card accounts between 2011 and July 2015, allowing the bank to make more money in fees and meet internal sales targets.

The result was a stock price that continued to rise, reaching never-before seen heights in Wells Fargo’s history.

High expectations were leading to high performance, and everything was running smoothly … until it wasn’t. In July, 2015, the City of Los Angeles filed the first class-action lawsuit alleging widespread fraudulent behavior by banking employees in order to hit the unrealistic sales targets the company kept setting.


Now, it is certainly the case that every employee who played fast and loose with the rules, up to and even including outright fraud, owns the moral culpability of his or her own choices. But, when it comes to leading an organization of people — flawed, human people — to perform at a high level that meets high expectations, that easy and truthful fact can’t be the end of the discussion. More is required of leaders than simply pointing to the employees on whom the weight of the organization’s success rests, saying “Don’t do bad things!” and then expressing shock when they do even as the leaders profit from the same.


As P.E. Gobry correctly points out

If you give people impossible, or contradictory goals, then something will give. Salespeople will resort to fraud, or aggressive sales tactics that will hurt your brand (“Managers suggested to employees that they hunt for sales prospects at bus stops and retirement homes,” reports The Wall Street Journal), or something else. … Financial regulation cannot prevent this kind of scandal — forging signatures is already illegal. At the root of this problem is human nature: Mutually exclusive, high-pressure demands will cause people to break.

This fact about human nature and psychology is woven into the fabric of Reality as it relates to leading people. It is an aspect of Reality that the leaders of Wells Fargo either missed (to be charitable) or ignored (to be blunt), and the bruises sustained by the Wells Fargo brand are the result of this leadership failure. It was leaders up and down the Wells Fargo organization who created a system and culture of high-pressure performance expectations detached from Reality … and who structured their employees financial incentives in such a way as to give that pressure real teeth.

Ultimately, that high-expectations monster, untethered from Reality, turned its teeth on the leaders that unleashed it.

The scandal prompted the resignation of then-CEO John Stumpf. Working to move past the episode, Wells Fargo has shaken up its board of directors, ousted several top executives and changed its compensation system by removing sales incentives as a factor in salary hike decisions for many employees.

But the wages of that leadership failure don’t just stop with the removal of employees and leaders alike whose actions pushed Wells Fargo beyond the Critical Angle of Attack for too long and into an ethical stall. The business — and its shareholders — still have some big bills of accountability to pay. After agreeing to a $190 million settlement with the Consumer Protection Bureau and California prosecutors in 2016, Wells Fargo is (as of July) close to settling several class action lawsuits for an additional $142 million … and that still won’t be the end of the litigation.

In the cockpit, demands and wishes and authority are never up to the task of overriding physics. In leading people and the organizations they make up, the same is true: demands and wishes and authority are insufficient without the humility required to accept the inconvenient effects of Reality. It is a variable without which the equation for success doesn’t work, and one that leaders ignore to their peril.

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