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The Danger of GPS for Leadership

We are losing our ability to read maps. Thanks to navigation systems, Google maps, Waze and their like, most of us simply have to have a good address for our destination in order to get somewhere, anywhere in the world. We no longer have to puzzle about the best route, nor do we even have a sense of the journey ahead when we set out. We simply listen for the next immediate instruction. In many ways it’s a miracle. It opens our horizons (who knew that little lane would bring me out to this intersection?) and makes us more efficient.

However, we have also lost our ability to practice some of the most basic and most important skills of leadership. Reading a map is a powerful cognitive parallel to the skills required for strategic thinking from leaders. 

Here are the six skills we practice when we use a map and we lose when we listen attentively to the GPS:

Think big picture. The screen size of a navigation system provides detail at the immediate level, but doesn’t show the breadth of a journey particularly well. Holding an old-fashioned paper map puts a journey in scale, and orients you to direction and complexity.

Orient yourself. The direction options on a GPS can confuse North and South, altitude and proximity. Even as you turn a paper map to have it make sense to you, you’re orienting your thinking about where you are and where you are headed.

Read the landscape. How far between milestones? How close to geographic features or points of interest? Are we climbing? Descending? Paralleling something important? The context of where we are right now can get lost amid the immediacy of following short term direction.

Identify interesting and useful excursions. What could make this trip better? What can we see? Do? Capitalize on? The singlemindedness of GPS limits the creativity of a map.

Weigh the options. Yes, there is a trip that is the fastest passage between two points, but is that our only objective? What are we trading off?

Prepare for a challenge. Although a GPS may warn you of traffic (which is useful), it rarely says “steep climb” or “bumpy road” or “massive intersection” ahead. A map gives you clues about the journey to come, so you can prepare and succeed.

Maps of the economic world are notoriously vague. We don’t have clear pictures from a satellite about what the next months, years, or decades will bring. We regularly remind ourselves that all our decision making is about the future and all our data is about the past, but that’s an easy out. With a little attention, we can start to see signposts and features of the “landscape” both ahead and around us. There are competitor dynamics, customer needs, “jobs to be done” (in design parlance), employee engagement, and economic announcements. If leaders reframe their thinking like reading a map, there’s lots to see and many insights to be had.

We love the leverage GPS gives us—efficiency, information, clarity (turn right in 300 feet). Leaders need to take a balanced leadership approach. The most effective leaders build a map, literally or figuratively, to help make sense of the data and detail and direction that analytics (the GPS of leadership) have to offer.

So make a map, keep making it better, and use it. Leaders who rely too heavily on “GPS-triggered” thinking may not end up at their destination.

 Learn more about Balanced Leadership


Amanda Young Hickman is co-founder of Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich, immersive business simulations and experiential learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.