Leaders as Map Makers

November 8, 2013

Map Territory

“Human live in two worlds–the world of events and things (the territory) and the world of words about events and things (the map).”  –Karl Weick

As a leader, you use words (mission statement, vision, strategic plans, and models) to help members of your organization negotiate the territory in front of them—to get where you want them and the organization to go. You are mapmaker or a map translator, or perhaps both.

The key to the effectiveness of any map and any leader, for that matter, is buy-in. Strategic planners often lose sight of this. They spend more time and effort on map making than they do on making sure end-users will actually understand the map and use it appropriately. As a leader, it’s important to realize that the more people who participate in creating the map/strategic plan, the more buy-in you’re likely to get. They’ll better understand the territory and where they need to go.

The following story illustrates the importance of participation and buy-in, as it relates both to territories and maps. It was told by Nobel Prize Winner, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, and converted into a poem by Miroslav Holub:  

The young lieutenant of a small Hungarian detachment in the Alps
sent a reconnaissance unit out into the icy wasteland.
It began to snow
immediately, snowed for two days and the unit
did not return. The lieutenant suffered: he had dispatched
his own people to death.

But the third day the unit came back.
Where had they been? How had they made their way?
Yes, they said, we considered ourselves
lost and waited for the end. And then one of us
found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down.
We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map
we discovered our bearings.
And here we are.

The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map
and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps
but of the Pyrenees.

Maybe it was just luck that this group of soldiers found their way back. Or maybe we tend to overestimate the importance of maps and underestimate the importance of buy-in. Even a faulty map can be effective when the whole group buys into it. They can draw connections between the territory in front of them and the map, and together find direction.    

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