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Leaders: Do you know what is on your organization’s horizon?

By Sara M. Johnson, FACHE Director, Executive Education,IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs at IUPUI

While relaxing on a recent cruise to Cuba, I started thinking about leadership (I know…I can’t help it). Ever an observer and student of leadership and organizational culture I was struck by lessons that can be learned on both land and sea.

As we left the port on the cruise ship, I positioned myself on the top deck to watch our departure. As we worked our way to the Skyway Bridge at the edge of Tampa Bay, I noticed the ship turning subtly left and right within a path of lighted buoys. Slowly, the ship would veer left, then right, threading its way through the Bay as we headed out to sea. There was great attention to direction and the required turns that led us safely out to the Gulf. The narrow passage under the bridge also required a precise positioning by the captain in order to prevent the cruise ship from hitting the bridge supports. This seemed a strategic process to ensure the safety of the ship and its passengers. Though it may have been something the captain did all the time, it was strategic, subtle and purposeful. I doubt I would have known it was happening had I not been on the deck observing his path.

On land, I mindlessly travel the same route to work most of the time. I know where the potholes are, the lane changes, and the bottlenecks. I know the best time of day to leave the house to avoid the most traffic. It is easy to drive through traffic without really thinking about what I am doing. Some days I arrive at work, hardly remembering the trip.

In the classic book, “Leadership on the Line,” by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, they talk about the “view from the balcony.” Like the view from the ship’s deck, leaders must occasionally step back, take a look out over the organization, and observe the big picture and the horizon. It is easy to get comfortable and lose sight of what is ahead and the signs along the way.

So, in my relaxed state on vacation, it occurred to me how dangerous it may be to lead the way I drive versus the way the captain navigated the water. Do I need to “get on the balcony” or “on the deck” to determine the best path for the future success of my team and organization? Like the buoys, should I be paying more attention to the signals from staff and other stakeholders?

In times of great change, leaders need to build organizational confidence. I suggest it is also good for leaders to do this for themselves occasionally to take note of their own development, reaffirm their values and the direction they are leading their team or organization.

Making an effort to be intentional in our leadership, “getting on the deck” and strategically looking to the horizon as we observe the signals that should guide us daily. Not only will we feel more confident but those who follow will feel more confident, too.


Sara Johnson is clinical assistant professor for the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs and director of IU Executive Education. Johnson teaches graduate and executive education courses. She is a fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives (FACHE). As director of Indiana University Executive Education, Johnson leads a team of over 40 faculty and staff.

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