Finding your Way: The Basics of Land Navigation Can Help You Overcome the Challenges of Leadership

By LTC (Retired) Sande Schlesinger & Daniel Schaublin, Sunday, January 01, 2017

Working in an unfamiliar operating environment. Making tough choices with incomplete information. Adjusting your plan mid-stride to adapt to changes. These are some of the challenges that face leaders in today’s dynamic marketplace. They also happen to be some of the difficulties that confront an Army officer leading a unit on a mission through unfamiliar terrain. At first glance, it may seem that navigating your way through the woods using a compass and a map may have little in common with effectively running a business. However, there are striking similarities between the perspective and tactics required to navigate from point A to point B and those necessary for management success.

In the military, moving along a route to a specific location is an essential building block of a successful operation. Soldiers hone their direction finding abilities on a land navigation course. A close civilian counterpart is orienteering. In both cases, participants find several points on the course using only a compass, a map, and their instincts. There is a time limit, and failure to complete the course on time can result in a penalty. Finally, the course can be conducted individually or in teams, the latter method adding the complexities of a group dynamic to the basic difficulty of the exercise.

While the details of every orienteering course are different, there are some basic principles that can improve a participant’s performance. Surprisingly, these translate very well into practices that all leaders can use to enhance their skills.

Be keenly aware and take time to become attuned to the environment – There’s a tendency in a timed event like land navigation to jump off the starting line like it’s a 100-yard dash. While time is an important consideration, it’s equally important to take a moment at the outset to understand where you are, know where you want to go, and determine the best way to get there. Business leaders, likewise, must take time to reflect and get a bird’s eye view of how their company is engaged in its industry and where they would like to see it go in the future.

Technology is good but imperfect – A map is a great tool to have, as long as you know how to read it and understand its imperfections. A compass can be a lifesaver, but relying on one too much could lead you to lose sight of the terrain. In the modern marketplace, technology is changing the way businesses succeed daily. Leaders who understand both the best use of emerging technologies and their limitations can maximize employee potential and company strength.

Constantly evaluate the plan as you progress – Every segment of a land navigation exercise is an opportunity to build on successes, fix problems, or validate a better way of doing things. Participants can’t let one bad portion throw off their performance on the remainder of the course. Nobody gets leadership right the first time or every time. Confronted with constantly changing situations in dynamic industries, a leader cannot allow one bad decision to derail the entire enterprise. Learn from mistakes, build on strengths, and dare to innovate.

Anticipate mistakes and leave time for setbacks – Murphy lurks around every boulder on an orienteering course. Fallen trees may turn a 5-minute walk into 15-minutes. Rainfall may have flooded a stream crossing, forcing you to change your route. A trail intersection printed on the map may not be so easy to spot on the ground. For today’s leaders, understanding and hedging against those variables that can’t be controlled but can be foreseen may be the difference between success and failure.

Trust your instincts and be comfortable with the unknown – You look at the map, analyze the surrounding terrain, pick your route, and go. Along the way, doubt begins to creep in: Is that trail intersection the one on the map? Have I already walked 100 meters or have I only gone 50? All of these hilltops look alike – am I headed for the right one? The best way to cope with doubt is not to get rattled. Rely on your plan, use your tools, trust your instincts, and continue to move toward the objective. In the same way, industry leaders must personally continue to work through those moments of doubt and inspire confidence in their employees during periods of uncertainty.

Today’s business leaders, like the lieutenant leading a platoon toward an objective, must not only know where they want their company to go, but also the best way to get there. Land Navigation is just one of the many challenging experiential learning activities offered at the Thayer Leader Development Group.