Throughout history, navigation and the ability to “Find our Way” has been an essential skill. When leading others, navigation and wayfinding is especially important, and in some cases a matter of life and death.
As my friend Jay Cone puts it, navigation in the “known” world where maps are clear and well detailed is one thing — that is the skill of map reading. Finding your way in a world where there is no reliable map, or at best a crude one, is another matter — that is a task of creation, or refining and learning while “Exploring the Territory.” The implications for leaders and leadership skills are important.
Building Reliance on Directions
Today, apps like Google Maps and Waze make it easy for us to navigate the known world. Indeed, we barely need to take notice of our surroundings since the voice on our phone or nav system guides us every step of the way. All we need do is follow directions.
This is a triumph of technology that makes our everyday lives easier and the world more accessible. But what happens when your phone dies? What happens if you are in the woods and it’s getting dark? What happens if you are in fact exploring a territory where there is no reliable and current map or chart? John Edward Huth, in his book The Lost Art of Finding Our Way, writes that with all the gains we have won through mapping technology, something important can be lost — the basic survival skills of wayfinding.
A New Kind of Leadership is Required
The metaphor for leaders today is clear. Many senior leaders have grown up and developed their craft in industries that for decades did not change greatly. The map by which they learned to navigate their business and lead their people was refined over the years, but remained fairly stable. Read the map, be a good manager.
Today, however, many industries are being transformed by external forces moving at exponentially increasing speed: digitization, consumerization, urbanization, climate change. The maps that we have used in the past will not be sufficient for the territory we are now entering.
We need a new skill set, or perhaps we need to re-learn a very old skill set. In an unknown world, where uncertainty and danger lurked around every corner, explorers and map makers once honed core skills. These included the keen observation of things influencing their current position; the impact of forces around them- sun, moon, wind and tide; using all their senses to take in information (ancient mariners could “smell” land long before they could see it). Paying attention to small details provided clues to the puzzle and holding hypotheses loosely as new information was gained made them willing to change their assumptions about the picture they were drawing in their head and on paper. They understood that perspective changes drastically based on height and distance. They had the skills of “dead reckoning”: knowing that the line they drew to a destination was never straight at the target, but had to account for the forces at work on them as they moved.
Navigating Uncharted Waters as a Leader Today
Leaders today managing in complexity, uncertainty, ambiguity and rapid change could learn a lot from ancient explorers. Leading others in business may now have more to do with exploring the territory than it does with reading refined maps. Pay attention to all that is going on around you. Re-awaken and cultivate your senses. Learn how to gauge your surroundings and sharpen your intuition. The survival of your business, and safe passage of those you lead, just might depend on it.