Navigating Uncharted Territory


You’ve never seen these waters before, but your ship is full of cargo and people. The cargo must be delivered to a customer in some far-off port. The people are anxious to get to their destination.…You’re not really sailing a ship across the sea, but you might as well be. You’ve never seen this kind of challenge in your organization before and you’ve never captained a ship before. In fact, you have visions of hearing the cry, “Man overboard!” after you have jumped into the water! What do you do? Get out the maps and rope-tying diagrams or do you start giving orders?

That scenario is a bit extreme. It’s not often that a leader has people’s lives on the line. (Although many of you do indeed have that level of responsibility!) Nor would a leader normally be thrust into an entirely unfamiliar scenario with no relevant experience.

However, I’m sure you have been in situations where you must choose between two options:

  • Stop to learn more and gather more data, then act and move forward.
  • Quickly assess what is currently known, act, and learn more as you go.

In the first case, you take time to talk to experts, or at least those more familiar with the challenge. You acquire more knowledge. You get advice from those who have been in similar settings. Then you evaluate all information, risks, and options. You make a decision and take action.

In the second case, you pause for a short time to reflect on what is currently known. You quickly consider risks and known options. You take action rather soon. As you’re moving forward, you gather more information, learn, and adjust along the way.

Which is right? Neither, really.

Neither option is more often correct than the other. (Certainly, neither is always the right choice!) “Which is right?” or “Which is right more often?” is actually the wrong question.

Here’s what you need to know. Here’s what you must really understand to improve your leadership.

You have a natural tendency toward one of those options. Which one?

Do you feel more comfortable learning then acting?

Or, do you feel more comfortable acting then learning?

Every leader has a tendency toward one or the other. Effective leaders know which way they lean. Effective leaders also know the tendency of their key teammates on this dimension.

The most effective leaders have a balance of learners then actors as well as actors then learners around them.

Here are some questions to help you think about this issue.

  1. When a strategic opportunity arises, do you tend to assign research and investigation tasks to your trusted teammates? Or do you take early action on the opportunity, assessing what your team learns in the experience?
  2. When faced with an unfamiliar problem, do you tend to do what you can to put brakes on the scenario so that you can measure and get advice from others? Or do you move forward cautiously, applying what you’ve learned from similar situations in the past?
  3. What is the tendency of your key team members? Do you have a balance of both styles?
  4. Do your team members know how to embrace those with the opposite tendency? Have you modeled embracing that tension?

Thinking through the many leaders I’ve known and worked with, I can’t say there is a tendency for one over the other among the most effective leaders.

I’ve known great leaders who tended to be methodical and meticulous with information, and they knew how to execute based on mastery of information.

I’ve also know great leaders who tended to make quick judgments, with quality, and learn from successes and failures in the process of moving forward.

What made them successful is not the style of learning vs. acting. What made them successful is that they knew when to revel in their tendency and when to be challenged with discomfort.

Photo by Pablo GarciaSaldaña. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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