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 Management Minute

Navigation and Leadership

By Michael R. Fraser, PhD, CAE, Chief Executive Officer, AMCHP

Burnison’s ninth absolute of leadership is “navigate.” I must admit when I first read his chapter on the topic, I was not exactly sure how this fit into my understanding of leadership. Navigate felt like a strange absolute mostly because it’s not a discreet or easy concept to define – it is a mix of some of the other absolutes he describes. To me, navigation blends strategy, operations and an intuitive sense of where a leader is going. In classic strategic planning, your plan is your map, your goals are your way points and your tactics are how you propose to get to your objectives along the way. The role of a leader is to motivate their crew to reach their goal. I never considered the importance of navigation at all in this classic view but, on closer reflection, I think Burnison is on to something.

To navigate takes into account the strategic end point (goal) and the operational aspects of a journey (objectives and tactics). But navigation also brings intuition and the art of leadership to the conversation – good navigators have a “feel” for their surroundings, they know where to watch for the shallow waters in a harbor and where the sand bars and islands lay in an open sea. They know the ins and outs of their ship and they are the nexus between the captain and the crew. A leader is like a navigator: someone who is close to the strategy – the end point – and knows what it is going to take to get there with the resources they have (their “crew” and their “ship”). A good leader is close to the ground – they know their people, they know their business, they know their operations – but they never lose sight of their goals. I suppose “navigate” then really must be an absolute of leadership.

A few years ago, I heard a reference to a bad leader being like “Christopher Columbus.” What on earth does that mean? Well, Christopher Columbus did not know where he was going (he had no map). He didn’t know where he was when he got there (he thought he was in India, hence the term “Indian” to describe Native Americans and Caribbean Islands named “Indies.” The real kicker, he did it with someone else’s money (Spain’s). Navigation certainly is more complicated without a map, without knowledge of the ground on which you stand and without the ownership that comes with being invested early on in the journey. Was Columbus a leader? That’s not the question. The question is, how many of us are leaders like “Christopher Columbus” – not knowing where we are going with our work, not knowing where we are when we accomplish it and doing it with some else’s money? I won’t quibble that Columbus’ “discovery” of the New World was an amazing feat but he was lucky (and the Native Americans weren’t) – such serendipity is not often realized today. Even the most creative and innovative of us have a sense of where we are going even if we aren’t exactly sure how to get there or we don’t have all the resources needed to complete the trip.

The navigation absolute is a good one because it brings many facets of leadership to the conversation. It is a way to think multi-dimensionally about leading and melds the technical aspects of our work (strategy, planning, execution) with the artful aspects of leading (our gut feeling, our intuition, our deep knowledge of our crew and our surroundings). As you lead work in maternal and child health, how do you navigate through your journey? Are you, like Columbus, relying on chance and coincidence to bring you to your goal (with someone else’s money!). Or, are you a more informed navigator – plotting a course and realizing the human factors involved in getting there? I hope it is the latter!

[This is the ninth installment in a continuing series on The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership by Gary Burnison. If you would like to get your own copy of The Twelve Absolutes of Leadership and follow along over the next few months, you can order it online via the AMCHP link to AMCHP receives a small royalty for all orders placed via this link. The opinions of the author, and of Mike, are their own and are not the official position of AMCHP.]