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True North through the Storm

Renting an eighty foot houseboat with our good family friends to tool around Dale Hollow Lake for a week in the summer…what could be better?

Each of our families had four kids — equally matched, with four boys and four girls ranging in age from 4 to 13. We had planned the menus and packed our swimsuits. All were ready for leisurely days spent anchoring to swim and docking in cool, tree-laden bays at night. After a very short walkthrough, the rental company threw the keys to the guys, and we headed out. We had little  information about how the boat worked and had no idea where we were headed. But, we were happy to be off on our adventure.

It wasn’t long until the skies turned suddenly gray, the wind whipped up, and the plastic lawn furniture went sailing off the top deck. Even though our friend Frank had been in the Navy for a few years, most of his experience was in the galley peeling enormous amounts of potatoes. We felt very unprepared for maneuvering this craft in the storm. Some spousal screaming, wailing from children, and scrambling for strategies to cope ensued until things calmed down.

At times during my professional career I felt I was thrown keys to an eighty foot houseboat and told to sail.

No map to orient, no clear idea of the destination and no helpful guidelines. Thankfully, I may have only metaphorically lost a few plastic deck chairs. I contrast those experiences with times when I was well oriented and clear in how “what I was doing” fit in with the larger organizational direction. Leaders worth following tend to put a greater purpose above their own interest. They are able to communicate that purpose well throughout the organization. That level of focus typically allows those organizations to accomplish greater things than they would have otherwise. Having a robust strategic planning process is one tried and true way of orienting the organization, empowering people and targeting resources. The first level of any strategic planning process is usually anchored by what I affectionately call the uncovering of the “true north.”

What Is True North?

Simply put, true north is the direction that anchors an organization while things around might be changing or allowed to change. It usually has three components:

  1. Clarity of Purpose – An organization’s mission or purpose answers the question “why do we exist?” What are we here to do? In the case of a non-profit it might answer the question, “what is our cause?”
  2. Clear Destination – A vision or desired state answers the question, where do we need to be organizationally in the foreseeable future that will better enable us to fulfill our mission or purpose. “Where are we heading?”
  3. Well Articulated Values – Values are like guideposts for the organization. I think about them as the organization’s conscience. Stated differently, “are we are living into our purpose, and achieving our desired state, but doing it in a way that honors what matters most to us.”

There are obviously many more layers to a good strategic plan and the above seems very basic. However, it is this clarity around the true north that often compels and propels an organization.

How clear is the true north in your organization?

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