Two of a leader’s greatest responsibilities are to figure out where to go and how to get there. Where to go is the vision and how to get there is the strategy. Virtually everything a leader does comes down to these two issues: vision and strategy. Without a vivid picture of the future (vision) and a plan to move the organization toward that vision (strategy), the leader isn’t really leading.
A recent issue of Smithsonian magazine has a feature article, written by Roy Blount Jr., on Steven Spielberg’s latest movie Lincoln. The movie is primarily about passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Aside from Lincoln, one of the main characters in this real life drama is U.S. Representative Thaddeus Stevens, described by Blount as “the meanest man in Congress, but also that body’s fiercest opponent of slavery.” Thus, Lincoln had an ally in principle, but a difficult one given Lincoln’s humble, affable character.
How Lincoln and Stevens worked together and with others, for this common goal, is central to the movie. Blount describes one scene in which Lincoln and Stevens are conversing and Lincoln explains a principle of leadership. In Blounts words, Lincoln’s point was,
“A compass will point you true north. But it won’t show you the swamps between you and there. If you don’t avoid the swamps, what’s the use of knowing true north?”
This accurately describes the two main responsibilities of leadership, to know the vision (true north), and how to get there (avoidance of the swamps).
There are a few characteristics of swamps that are worth exploring for their insights on this principle of leadership. First, swamps are wet and cold; they are terribly uncomfortable if you happen to find yourself in one. If a leader navigates the organization into a swamp, you can be assured everyone will feel suffer the consequences—not just the leader. Too often leaders think the only one suffering the consequences of bad strategic planning is themselves. Not true. The followers in the organization may not know why the missteps of swamp avoidance were made, but they most certainly feel the effects. As you re-work your strategy consider that you aren’t the only one suffering.
Second, swamps are also hard to move through. They slow everyone down. It is difficult to move body and tools through a swamp. If your strategic objectives aren’t being met and your analysis shows poor individual performance in the organization generally, stop for a moment to look around. You might just find yourself in a swamp. You, the leader, may have steered everyone in the right direction, but not around the problems.
Third, swamps are also full of life. Swamps are not barren, dead places. They are teeming with a wide variety of plant and animal life. So, if you find your organization and yourself stuck in a swamp, pause to see if there is some way to leverage the problem for gain.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, swamps almost always require a change in the route. Swamps are not easily traversable. There isn’t usually a way through, just a way out and around. Swamps that are discovered along the route require route changes. However, swamps that are known before the journey begins can be successfully avoided altogether.
Also quite obviously, is the idea that you should map out and avoid the swamps before you begin your journey to the destination. Swamps are most easily detected in maps that are drawn by others who have gone before in their own leadership explorations. These maps are found in books, conferences, seminars, blogs, and other communication tools. They are the stories people tell about leadership in the trenches (and swamps). It is wise to develop relationships with these leader/explorers so that you can tap into their wisdom at a moments notice.
What have you found to be helpful in avoiding and dealing with swamps along the way to your destination?