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Navigation Lessons for Strategic Leaders

Knight Campbell
January 20, 2024

How strategic leadership can get un-lost

As guides and leaders at Cairn Leadership, we have been lost once or twice. It turns out most people are actually a little lost most of the time. The good news? Experts offer great advice on how to get home after losing your way in the wilderness, and their advice applies to strategic leadership as well. 

Advice on getting lost. What can leaders learn? 

There is a thin line between lost and not lost. In fact, our brains work hard just to maintain a grasp on where “we” begin and end. For example, when you breathe in, what part of that air becomes part of you? This blurry border explains how when we become hyper-focused in meditation or deep in flow, we can get a sense of being ‘one with the universe.’ The part of our brain in charge of “self” just tapped out.

We all have mental maps to help us operate day to day. You probably could walk from your bed to the kitchen to get a glass of water in the dark, because you have a refined mental map for that route. We also typically have a good idea of our starting and ending points (i.e. home and work), but we couldn’t really articulate our exact location in transit. That’s OK because we will know ‘work’ when we pull into the parking lot. 

At Cairn Leadership, when we teach outdoor navigation for team development events, we break navigation down into a few situations. 

You know points A and B, and have visibility. You can see where you’re going, so start walking!

You know points A and B, but can’t see. You will need a map and compass to shoot bearings you can follow in the fog.

You don’t know where you are, but you can see. It’s time to figure it out. Look at reality and start building your mental map using bearings to obvious features around you.

It’s when you don’t know where you are and you can’t see that things get messy.

In the last case, we literally teach people to camp out until they can see again. You probably even learned this as a child, when you get lost just stay put. Moving at this point will only get you more lost. 

In this crisis we don’t know where we are, we can’t see, AND we don’t even know where we are going. Why are we all still frantically moving?

Strategic leadership often denies being lost.

In Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzalez offers the working definition of being lost when our mental map does not match reality. He describes how people who get lost go through four stages: denial, panic, strategy, and resignation. 

Without markers like Cairns, a blank landscape can easily match what you want to see.

By Gonzalez’s definition, I got lost every day while leading expeditions in Alaska. I would gain a ridge expecting to see a lake and see only a valley. Sometimes I would stop and recalculate my location with my compass. More often I would shrug, wondering how such a big lake could dry up. Denial. 

We often deny being lost, and it works out just fine. In the wilderness, a teammate asks to see the map one more time and points out the mystery lake behind us. In urban life, the route may meander, but we usually get to the endpoint. Other times, like now, denial can be dangerous. It takes us farther off the path, eventually eliminating the option to backtrack. 

And then panic sets in.  

When we finally realize that something is awry, a bad thing happens. Our reptilian brain, the Amygdala, starts firing- danger, danger, danger! This is the reaction that allows us to quickly jump back when we see a curved snake-like object, but in this case, it’s harmful. Fear and anger are the Amygdala’s way of keeping us safe through quick reactions. Unfortunately, cool rationalism and measured action are what we need to get found! This is not safe! Anticipatory fear fills us and emotion naturally shuts down our prefrontal cortex- the logic center of our brains. Wild and exhausting thrashing ensues, putting us in danger of injury and pushing us deeper into the unknown. 

There is a wrong time for strategy.   

Next Gonzalez says that most people who don’t perish by hypothermia or falling off a cliff (and many do), wear out their panic and realize the severity of the situation. They rightfully remove the emotion, and begin to think strategically. This sounds like the right track, save an important issue. Usually, people think strategically with the faulty assumption that they know their current location. Leaders start plotting meaningless bearings based on incorrect assumptions.

‘Amor Fati’ - Love of Fate

Survivors make it to the last stage- resignation. Don’t take this as giving up, as much as starting over. It becomes clear that the only way to start is from a blank mental map- like an old video game where your map expands as you move around the screen. It is only from this place of acknowledging what we don’t know, that we can start mapping out a post-COVID future that may or may not look different from February 2020.  

So, here’s a mountain guide perspective: We are lost, can’t see, and don’t even know where we are. 

The solution? Slow down; camp out. Take a breather and just take care of each other while the smoke clears. The mad rush to ‘pivot and adapt’ is wasting our time, and more importantly, wasting an opportunity to really lead people before we begin to ever so slowly build a new mental map. 

The meaning of life must be the journey, or it really is as nasty and brutish as Hobbes claimed. Amor Fati means love of fate; embrace this part of the journey too. The stoics, the philosopher leaders, the ones among us who can slow down and seek the intersection of “we want” and “we must” will be the ones to successfully lead us out of this crisis.

Questions? We'd love to hear from you! 

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