Leaders as Cartographers


I find maps fascinating. I’ve stared at maps for long periods of time while my mind goes on a virtual journey through the city or countryside. I am fascinated by the layout of roads and geographic features, buildings, parks and landmarks, and the occasional surprising discovery. When I was a kid, I enjoyed tracking our progress along the highway during family vacation trips. Even today, I prefer to look at paper maps over Google Maps on my phone or computer. (However, the intelligence that comes along with Google Maps makes it a winner!)

Maps are vital tools for leaders, too. Most leaders don’t wrestle with geographic navigation, but they certainly navigate organizational and strategic problems.

One of my favorite exercises for workshops has to do with maps. This exercise is universally enlightening and entertaining. What I do is ask for two volunteers (or more depending on available whiteboard space). Then I ask the volunteers to come to a space on the whiteboard and draw a map of the greater metro area we are currently in. In my case, that is usually the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.

No two maps of the same metro are ever alike. No two maps of Minneapolis/St. Paul have ever been alike across all the times I’ve ever done this exercise! Although, one pattern I’ve found is that there is always more detail and accuracy closer to where each individual lives and works.

There are a number of lessons that can be drawn from this exercise. I’ll let your imagination run with the possibilities, but here are four ways that maps are important. They help leaders in

  1. Visualizing the destination and journey,
  2. Planning resources and strategy,
  3. Anticipating roadblocks and detours, and
  4. Enjoying oases and scenic views.

If leaders do not utilize maps for these four reasons, their followers will have different and even conflicting perspectives of the journey and the lay of the land.

Visualizing the Destination and Journey
Maps help us better understand where we are coming from and where we are going. There is a big difference between traveling from St. Paul, MN to Chicago, IL and from St. Paul to Honolulu, HI.

A good map makes all the difference in understanding where we are and where we’re going. Also, a strong picture of the destination helps motivate followers and helps us all know when we’ve succeeded.

Planning Resources and Strategy
That map also helps us understand what we will need on the journey. What resources are required? What’s the best strategy to get there? I need different resources and strategy to get to Chicago than I do to Honolulu.

Maps help us understand the resources and strategies required for success on the journey.

Anticipating Roadblocks and Detours
Good maps help us see where we will have trouble along the way. When I was a kid, I remember my dad ordering travel maps from AAA a few weeks ahead of a trip. These maps often included warnings about planned and in-process construction. Google Maps does the same thing today (with amazing accuracy and almost up-to-the-minute adjustments).

Maps help us anticipate the challenges that we’ll encounter on our journey. This allows us to adjust resource and strategy planning.

Enjoying Oases and Scenic Views
On those family trips I also remember studying the map for picnic bench symbols and forest tree symbols along our route. Those were wayside rests (bathroom!) and parks. Coordinating bathroom stops for six people can be a struggle, so we had to know where those stops were. Mom always had a picnic lunch packed to enjoy along the way and parks were the best place to eat. Sometimes we would stop at scenic views or historic sites as well.

It’s important to know when to take breaks. It’s also important to take time to enjoy the journey.

Do you strategically use maps with your team? How do you help followers understand these essential elements of working together on a journey to success?

Pull out a map for your next team meeting and ask your group how maps are helpful. Then use map language and imagery to have a conversation with them about a journey the team is currently on. I think you’ll find that the team has more unity and ability to travel in the same direction.

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.

Photo by Stephen Monroe. Photo available at Unsplash under CC0 license. Image modified for size and space.

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