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Navigating Leadership: 4 Factors to Consider in Your Leadership Journey

As a young pilot, I remember flying a night surveillance mission off the coast of Hawaii.

It was an exercise between two groups of ships and we were restricted from making any radio or radar transmissions, so as not to reveal the location of the ships in our group.

Despite the fact that I learned the basic and essential skills of navigation in Flight School, we relied almost entirely on technology and air controllers to navigate our missions in the Fleet.  However, this particular night we had neither technology nor controllers and we struggled as a crew to regain the skills of dead reckoning and inertial navigation to keep us on course and remain undetected.

The most important lesson I learned from this flight was not my need to relearn celestial navigation, but the fact that responsibility for navigation ultimately rested with me and my crew.

I also learned that my success as a pilot was dependent largely on how well I integrated that responsibility with all of the technology and systems that supported my journey.

The same lesson applies to leader development.

While there seems to be a growing reliance on “how to” books, seminars, speakers and an endless supply of quick fix kits guaranteeing improved leader abilities, none of those things independently guarantee a leader’s success.

Without question, the best leaders take personal responsibility for their development and actively integrate the tools and systems that will most benefit their leadership learning.

Unfortunately, many leaders “miss the boat” so to speak and rely on someone or something else.

To successfully navigate your leadership journey, here are four important factors to consider:

1. For every leader, the starting point should actually be the end point of your journey.

Just like a flight plan, your leadership destination is a function of the purpose that guides your life, shorter term personal and professional goals, and important check points, or milestones established along the way.

Leaders must continually assess their progress and correct course, in the same way that pilots adjust a flight plan to account for an increase in headwinds or turbulence along the way.

2. Without a chart or some means to plot and reference your journey, it’s nearly impossible to assess your progress or even know if you ever reach your destination.

By reflecting, journaling, and seeking input on your leadership course you gain a sense of the terrain or context you are traveling as well as a better understanding of the boundaries and hazards that affect your path.

A leadership map, with all its markings and data also serves as a means of accountability, showing others where you intend to go.  A map also has the potential to reveal opportunities, like shortcuts or more favorable conditions to leverage, improve, and accelerate your development outcomes.

3. Just like navigation, leadership is a complex and ever-changing task that demands a high level of skill, knowledge, and ability.

Tools and technologies, like smart phones, email, and analytics make the important tasks of communicating and decision making much easier to master.

However, leaders (not technology) are solely responsible to communicate and make decisions.  A leader’s success will be assessed not on the speed of a text or expansive analysis, but by the focus and impact of the message or action on the people being led.

4. Despite all of our best efforts to plan and train for the journey, quite often we end up flying into bad weather.

When that happens, we need the steady, comforting voice of the controller who guides us to the final approach course and keeps us on glide path until the runway in sight.

Mentorship, coaching, and peer accountability are the essential relationships that provide support to leaders who find themselves in stormy conditions.  Words of alignment, correction, and reinforcement from those with knowledge of both you and the destination are the voices that will keep you on course.

As I reflect on that dark and quiet night, I recall that we relied on some basic time and distance measurements to estimate which ship was ours and we managed to return home without turning on our radios or radar.

As leaders, we will face times when our journey is disrupted by unplanned changes or hidden limitations.  In times like that, having a clear goal, a robust plan, focused commitment, and a solid network of support will help a leader to stay on course.

A clear goal, a plan, focused commitment, and a support system will help a leader stay on course. Click To Tweet
Stephen Trainor

Stephen Trainor

Steve Trainor has over 30 years of Active Duty Navy experience as an operational helicopter pilot, executive human resources manager, and most recently as the U.S. Navy’s first Permanent Military Professor of Leadership. As Chair of the Leadership, Ethics and Law Department and Director of Leadership Education and Development at the U.S. Naval Academy, he led the expansion and transformation of leader development efforts across the institution. Steve’s research and expertise is focused on organizational culture, ethical leadership and high performance teamwork and he currently serves as Executive in Residence at Soderquist Leadership on the Campus of John Brown University. Steve serves on the editorial board of The Journal of Character & Leadership Integration at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and he holds masters degrees from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA. Steve received a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Stephen Trainor

Stephen Trainor

Steve Trainor has over 30 years of Active Duty Navy experience as an operational helicopter pilot, executive human resources manager, and most recently as the U.S. Navy’s first Permanent Military Professor of Leadership. As Chair of the Leadership, Ethics and Law Department and Director of Leadership Education and Development at the U.S. Naval Academy, he led the expansion and transformation of leader development efforts across the institution. Steve’s research and expertise is focused on organizational culture, ethical leadership and high performance teamwork and he currently serves as Executive in Residence at Soderquist Leadership on the Campus of John Brown University. Steve serves on the editorial board of The Journal of Character & Leadership Integration at the U.S. Air Force Academy, and he holds masters degrees from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA. Steve received a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Maryland, College Park.