The Importance of True North

To Travel. The other day I visited the former home of one of America’s most well known authors, Mark Twain. His books have been read by millions and millions all around the world for more than a century. In the lobby of the museum there was a quote by Mark Twain written on the wall. It has since then been ringing in my ears:

"Travel is Fatal to Prejudice.” In this oneliner the author captures the importance of staying open and not get locked into presumptions, which might later prove to be wrong; ideas and views which once they are confronted with other views prove to be misleading. To travel is important and life is a journey. To stay open is a key not to fall victim of prejudice. This is critical especially for leaders in the world of today, since creativity can easily be killed by the leader, the one with power to say yes or no.

Digitalization, technology, globalization and the political environment is constantly and quickly changing the landscape. In many situations the road ahead is unclear and not paved at all. Everyone is looking at the leader to take decisions and to give directions where to go. For the leader this is both challenging and risky.

True North. The more unclear the road forward is the more important is the inner compass of the leader. Some years ago I read a book called "True North". It was based on interviews with 125 leaders and how they act in different situations. One of the findings was that in very difficult and unclear situations a leader makes decisions based not necessarily on facts, but based on the inner compass. There might not even be any guiding facts. This ”compass” then becomes very crucial to understand, since it will have consequences for others and possibly for a whole organization and its stakeholders.

The term True North comes from navigation. Since I fly small aircrafts this a reality to me. The compass does not necessarily point in the right direction, in fact there are many reasons for why it most likely will not point toward the true north at all. The compass needs to be calibrated in order to show the right direction. The same is true for us as leaders.

The study pointed at five areas which makes up leaders’ True North. They were:

  • Values and Principles

  • Motivations

  • Support Team

  • Integrated Life

  • Self Awareness

These five areas constitute the inner compass and the sum will give the heading a leader will take in his/her decision making; the purpose for leadership.

Self Leadership. To understand what the above areas mean for myself and my context is self leadership. Leading oneself is probably the most difficult assignment a leader will ever get. Just study history and you will see how many have failed, because it means consequence and character. The hard thing is that character is usually formed in hard times; in situations of failure and hardship. Someone told me that we learn very little from success, but nearly everything from failure and pain. This is a tough message for most of us, but promising for some, who right now is experiencing a rough situation.

Why it is this way and why can’t it be a successful ride into the sky? The answer is that character is difficult to shape. Jewish tradition has an expression that " iron sharpens iron". This means that in order to grow leadership, which is characterized by perseverance and resilience one has to experience hard times; times of difficulties and failures. And the reason for this is that in tough times we get to know the reality about ourselves, which it is essential for self leadership. People follow leaders who hang in there. That is why perseverance and resilience become important components of a leader’s character. These leaders might not always have popular views or get many likes on Facebook, but in the end they will be the winners.  A great example is Winston Churchill, who is portrayed in the movie showing right now: Darkest Hour.

The Best is Ahead. To conclude this message on leadership and character I would like to quote the US President Theodore Roosevelt. For many of us Europeans he is unknown, but to the Americans he is one of the greatest Presidents. His face is carved out of granite at Mount Rushmore together with Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. These four faces look out of the rock to guard the development of their country.

Here is a passage from a speech made by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910:

”It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strongman stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiant… who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

So hang in there. If you experience difficulties, be grateful because it will make you a better leader. Get to know your True North and surround yourself with best people possible. They will help you to understand. And remember that the best is ahead.

Tomas Brunegård

Executive Chairman EuroAcademy