How to Lead Without a Map

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Have you ever gone backpacking? If so, you might be familiar with the unsettling experience of getting lost. The leader is usually the first to realize that something is amiss when the topography surrounding him stops corresponding to the map he clutches in his increasingly sweaty hands. Either because he is in denial or can’t openly admit to the group that he’s lost his way, the leader keeps quiet  and hopes that he can get back on track without anyone being the wiser. But as the hours pass, others in the party begin to suspect that they are headed in the wrong direction. They begin to whisper to one another. Eventually someone finally says out loud what everyone has been thinking for a long time: “We’re lost.”

Leading a team into the unknown means that a leader has to make educated guesses, risky decisions, and quick judgments, some of which will be wrong. This should not be a surprise. There is always an important difference between a tidy business plan and the hard facts of. Nevertheless, when goals go unmet, the leader is the one who bears the brunt of the responsibility for casting the wrong vision or messing up the execution. Nobody finds it easy to admit failure, leaders especially. Therefore, the whole group ends up trudging onward long after they should have stopped to take corrective measures or rethink the plan.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead of seeing success and failure as two binary options, leaders need to shift to an attitude of exploration. The truth is that leading an organization isn’t really like using a map at all. It’s more like trailblazing without any map. (As I discussed in my previous post, great leaders understand that they—and their organizations—are surrounded by uncertainties and the fog of the unknown.)

Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley have known this for a long time. So, they’ve taken a different approach to leadership and strategy. They begin with the assumption that some or most of a leader’s predictions and assumptions will be at least partially wrong. A leader’s job, then, is to find out as quickly as possible which predictions and assumptions were wrong and why they were wrong.  The next task is to take that newly gathered information and use it to make adjustments to either the organization itself or the product or service the organization is providing. It is an iterative process. In Silicon Valley it’s called pivoting, not failure.

Here are three tips to help you build an organization that can pivot:

  1. Communicate with your organization. Make it clear that you know where the organization is headed, but that there is no perfect map or a predetermined path to get there. You will have to find a trail or make one.
  2. Create a culture where it’s okay to be wrong. Encourage people to acknowledge reality instead of hiding from it.
  3. Formalize how you will collect data, analyze it, and disseminate the findings. Then modify your business model/product/service in response to what that data tells you. If you’re not systematic about it, pivoting won’t work.

Instead of talking predominately about success and failure, your organization should be talking about momentum and direction. Are you getting closer or further away from your goal and at what rate? Your organization should be talking about what it has learned and how the things it has learned have changed how the organization operates. Your organization should be talking about what it is going to stop doing today and what it is going to try tomorrow. Keep pivoting towards the goal until your organization is moving swiftly in the right direction.


Image courtesy of moggara12 at

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