The Law Of Navigation

“Anyone Can Steer the Ship, but it takes a Leader to Chart the Course.”
John C. Maxwell

Have you ever gotten really lost? I mean, so lost that you really have no idea how or when you will get back home, let alone where you originally wanted to go? I have! One of the books that I am currently reading is “Shackleton’s Way”, about the amazing efforts of Sir Ernest Shackleton in bringing his entire crew home after their ship was trapped and crushed by ice during an expedition to Antartica.

It reminded me of a time back during my uni days, the colleges at the Australian National University competed in a yearly event called ‘Inward Bound’. The aim of the game was to get your team to a pre-determined designated End Point as quickly as possible. Highest points were allotted to teams that arrive first in each division. Easy and basic orienteering exercise, right? 

Here’s the catch. We were assembled late at night in the hall of one of the colleges. Each of us were blindfolded then led to a car. A paper bag was then placed over our heads to really ensure that we couldn’t see anything. In convoys, the cars drove around Canberra for over an hour and made good use of a number of the roundabouts to totally disorientate us, the competitors, before being dropped off in the middle of nowhere. We often found ourselves in the middle of a fire trail or dirt road in a national forest. Even though we were given a map and compass, and even though we were given the specific details of where the End Point was,  none of us were told where we were dropped off! We had to figure it out ourselves before we plotted a course and it was important to get the Start Point right. Getting it wrong meant that we could be heading in the opposite direction to where we were supposed to be going. 

In one year, I was the leader for one of the teams. Gemma, Toni and Matt were my team members. What should have only taken us no more than 2 hours ended up being a 7 hour ordeal! Our team was well and truly lost in the great Australian bush as, yes you guessed it, I had the wrong starting point. I had my team running in the wrong direction for the first 2 hours. It was my responsibility to get us back safely.

It wasn’t as if I had not heard of teams getting lost before. There was one year where one team ran so far in the wrong direction to the End Point from the outskirts of Canberra that they only stopped when they saw the coast near Batemans Bay! We had done all our training for the event and were as prepared physically as we needed to be. However, in our planning, what we were not prepared for was the emotional battle when confronted with a major challenge.

There was no shortage of opinions from the team as to what we should do. Gemma was the most concerned and often felt that she couldn’t go any further. Matt was happy to go with whatever I decided on but I felt that he wanted to take over at times. Toni kept externally enthusiatic and positive although I could sense that she was getting concerned too. My whole team was getting tired and irritable. There were a number of occassions where I myself considered quitting and calling for help which would have automatically ruled us out of the race. However, as the leader, I felt that so long as the team could stay motivated, we could and would get to the End Point.

Any one of us could have gotten the team lost. The real issue as a leader was answering the  question of “Now What?”. I found myself spending most of my time in motivating my team; instilling hope; reminding them of the goal; assessing individual capabilities; and encouraging them to continue a little further when they felt that they couldn’t. This is all part of a leader’s responsibility. I recognise it now more than I did back then. The satisfaction of finishing was extraordinary. It was something really special to all of us and I have no doubt that everyone in my team was glad that we never gave up.

In reflecting on this experience and drawing on Shackleton’s Way, it is clear to me that great leadership comes to the fore when you are confronted with a significant challenge. How you personally respond to that challenge will pre-determine your team’s ability to confront it. God forbid that you are ever faced with a life or death situation like Shackleton but even if you’re not, it is good to learn from the likes of him as to how we can plan ahead, adjust our priorities as need be but most importantly, understand what is required to get the best out of our team members, both individually and collectively.

By Ivan Ang