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The Law of Navigation

January 11, 2011

(Note: This is part of a series based on John C. Maxwell’s book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.)

John C. Maxwell has written a number of books about leading and leadership.  They all have their merits and some of the books will resonate more with some readers than others, but it is his book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership that provides some delicious food for thought for us in the conducting business.

Law Number Four (or, Chapter Four as titled in Maxwell’s book) is called “The Law of Navigation.”  The byline for this chapter reads, “Anyone can steer the ship, but it takes a leader to chart the course.”

That byline reflects something I tell my conducting classes: Anyone can beat time, but not everyone is a conductor.  Now, while this might sound a bit stuffy, I believe it to be inherently true.  Everyone can learn how to play a piano; not everyone will become a pianist.  Everyone can learn to swing a golf club; not everyone can become a golfer (and even fewer can become a professional golfer). Regarding conducting, more than a few famous conductors (Otto Klemperer and Bernard Rubenstein come to mind) have said that they can teach anyone the basics of conducting in a few minutes. It is the other parts of conducting that take a lifetime to learn.

Maxwell begins this chapter with a fascinating story about the South Pole explorations of two groups, one lead by Roald Amundsen and the other lead by Robert Falcon Scott.  Amundsen spent months preparing and studying effective methods of travel (his studies included finding out how experienced Arctic travelers such as the Eskimos coped with the harsh conditions) while Scott did not invest his time the same way.  Scott brought gas powered vehicles which froze up and broke down. Scott brought horses that died in the freezing cold. This anecdote succinctly describes differences in preparation and the effects on both Amundsen and Scott. Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole by almost a month – Scott’s trip to the South Pole was fraught with turmoil. As bad as his trip to the South Pole was, his attempted return trip ended with the death of everyone in his party, including Scott himself, due to starvation and exposure.  Scott clearly had courage, but lacked leadership.

The profession of conducting requires courage. It takes courage to stand on a podium in front of a group of musicians and display the confidence to coordinate and unify their performance. There are times that difficult things need to be said, and there are times that decisions need to be made that will annoy or anger some in the ensemble.  Almost every aspect of conducting takes courage to execute – but, effective conducting takes leadership as well as courage.  And, the Law of Navigation is an essential one for leaders on the podium.

“Navigators see the trip ahead,” Maxwell writes.  “Leaders who navigate do more than control the direction in which they and their people travel. They see the whole trip in their minds before they leave the dock.” Could a better analogy for what conductors-as-musical-leaders exist?  We shouldn’t step on the podium unless we see the entire journey we are about to embark upon with our ensemble. Your ensemble is counting on you to plot a good, effective, accurate, efficient course with a logical destination at the end of the journey.

Maxwell states that leaders go through this process in order to give their journey the best chance for success:

  • Navigators Draw on Past Experience (they evaluate their successes and failures)
  • Navigators Listen to What Others Have to Say (rely on trusted sources and colleagues)
  • Navigators Examine the Conditions Before Making Commitments (good leaders count the cost of their actions)
  • Navigators Make Sure their Conclusions Represent both Faith and Fact (Be positive, but realistic – more on this in a later post regarding the Stockdale Parad0x.)

Maxwell then gives us a “navigation strategy” that is given to us as an acrostic:

Predetermine a course of action

Lay out your goals

Adjust your priorities

Notify key personnel

Allow time for acceptance

Head into action

Expect problems

Always point to the successes

Daily review your plan

The first letter of every stratagem spells out PLAN AHEAD.

Maxwell asserts that the major barriers to successful planning are: fear of change, ignorance, uncertainty about the future, and lack of imagination.  I often think that fear of change equates with uncertainty about the future, but that’s probably picking nits.

The secret law of navigation is preparation. How much of your time is spent in preparation? When you prepare well you convey confidence and people will likely trust you. It really isn’t the size of the project that matters, it is the size of the leader!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2011 3:23 pm

    Allow time is one aspect that seems difficult when you work with a new ensemble and only have a few rehearsals with them, and it’s so true that time is important.

    I love the one about expecting problems, because we think of problems as things that are not going right, but if we anticipate them to happen, then that makes them a normal part of the process. That also takes away the pressure of wondering whose fault it is that there are problems.


  2. Brian St. John permalink*
    January 14, 2011 2:40 pm

    Hi Geraldine,

    Thanks for your comment!

    I agree with you – allowing time is perhaps among the most difficult things one can do. Coach John Wooden, who is referenced in our blogposts via an interview, says that two of the most important qualities you can have are faith and patience. You have to have faith things are going the right direction and you have to have patience that they will get there. I have found having both faith and patience to be challenging at times!


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