There is much to be learned from journeys. From stepping out of our doors and by placing one foot in front of the other making progress towards a planned destination. Journeys are a great metaphor for the challenges we face in our day to day lives and the parallels we draw may allow us to set a goal and achieve it despite the obstacles.
Some journeys teach us more than others. They require more from us on a physical and mental level. A journey to a popular tourist destination is all very nice but the lessons to be learned will be somewhat limited. The Overland Track is a seventy-eight kilometre trek through the remote wilderness of Tasmania. It starts at Cradle Mountain and winds its way through alpine terrain, cold climate rainforest and eucalypt forest to finish at Lake St Clare. It typically takes five to six days to complete and walkers carry packs weighing close to twenty kilograms. The track’s combination of natural beauty, its physical demands from the ups and downs of crossing mountains and descending into valleys forms a special bond between those who complete it. It is an adventure from which many lessons can be drawn.
Every journey should begin with at least the idea of a destination in mind. Naturally plans change and the point that you finish at or the route that you take is not always the one you originally intended. When the journey involves a group of people and requires them to function as a team greater clarity of purpose and direction will be required. Purpose and direction is what allows a team to form and the degree to which they commit to the team’s goals will be largely influenced by their understanding of and commitment to that purpose. The goal of the group’s leadership should be to clearly communicate the team’s purpose and why it may matter to the team. Passionate leadership that reveals a strong belief in the purpose of the group or organisation is essential.
A key component of effective leadership is the communication of a passionate belief in the organisation’s purpose. In his book 'Talk Like TED' Carmine Gallo details the importance of the capacity to communicate one's passion for a purpose to those who will make it happen. Finding and sharing what makes you passionate about a goal by answering the question 'what makes your heart sing' according to Gallo is an important strategy towards effective communication of a goal and one element that all successful TED presentations share. If the goal is not as clear and apparent as making it back out of the wilderness alive then it will rely on effective and powerful communication to ensure commitment from all. Sadly, too often the passion that leaders have for their organisations purposes is not shared and those down the chain of command get caught up in doing the duties of their tasks with no understanding of the bigger picture to which their efforts are contributing.
Having fixed on a destination or a goal the tricky questions of how it will be reached must be considered. Having set the destination and clearly communicated the purpose of the journey, the process of planning the path towards the goal should be a collaborative one. In 'From Good to Great' Jim Collins uses the metaphor of a bus to explain the significance of the people selected to move an organisation towards its goal. According to Collins the aim should be to get the right people on the bus and then make sure they are in the right seat. Assuming that you have the right people joining you for your journey and that you have identified how to best utilise their strengths, now is the time to let them play their part. The alternative is to micromanage people. This approach is flawed in multiple ways; it denies ownership of the process, achievements and missteps, it robs the organisation of the advantages of its collective wisdom and depends entirely on the expertise of the leadership team and their ability to respond to every need. The demoralising effect of micromanagement is well documented as are the benefits of giving staff agency and discretion to make decisions in response to changing circumstances. In his book 'Originals', Adam Grant describes how even Steve Jobs, the reportedly domineering leader of Apple, benefitted from listening to subordinates. When planning a reorganisation of Apple's supply chain Steve Jobs initial solution was found to be inferior to an alternative proposed by a staff member. By being open to suggestions from within the team and ensuring methods were in place for these ideas to be put forward Apple found the most effective solution.
It is often said that the hardest part of any journey is the first step. There is a degree of truth in this. We become skilled in producing explanations for why we can't start. Perhaps the timing is not right, perhaps we are too busy, too entrenched in our every day demands to make changes or the imagined risk might be too large. Having the courage to set out on the journey requires belief that the potential rewards outweigh the risks. In the end stepping out of our comfort zones and into the wilderness (real or metaphorical) will put us on a path towards our goal but also towards the inevitable obstacles and set backs that are a part of any journey.
If the first step is difficult, overcoming the first significant obstacle is even more challenging. When the first obstacle is reached it is too easy to stop and go back to where we we were. Our commitment to the journey is small and the path back short, the path onwards too far. The temptation will be to cut your loses and go home. Reviewing the goal and reminding our selves of the advantages to come will help. So too will having found the right people to share the journey with; people who will help you overcome the obstacles. If the first obstacle you encounter is the only one then most likely the scope of your journey is too small, a grander vision is perhaps what you are seeking.
At some point along the way a combination of fatigue, looming difficulties and doubts is going to cause you to question the merits of your journey. On a trip into the wilderness this moment is likely to come when yet another steep uphill climb confronts you out of the mist and each step forward puts you further into the rain. Logic in this scenario will tell you that as tempting as it might be to lie down in the mud and surrender, this is not an option. Such an imperative to keep moving towards a goal should carry us past these difficult phases in our working lives but too often grand plans are abandoned or watered down to a point where they fail to achieve the success we had imagined. Groups that manage to work through such tough times while keeping to their goal are more likely to achieve great success. The capacity that is created out of confronting genuinely difficult challenges allows teams to achieve heightened levels of success in their futures.
At the end of the journey comes the time to both reflect and to celebrate. Having survived the wilderness and returned to civilisation you are likely to perceive things a little differently. Strengthened by the journey and taking pride in what you have achieved, the day to day should be easier to manage, the hills less steep, the mist easier to see through. As a team you should be ready to take on new challenges having discovered the true depths of your collaborative powers. In having achieved one goal the next should be easier to achieve and the lessons learned from the hard won victories will be there to guide you. Now is the time to look towards a new and even more audacious goal, one with real meaning and purpose that will fuel your passion and put you back into the wilderness.
by Nigel Coutts