The Leadership Compass

I’ve told the story many times of my getting lost in the woods while hiking in a forest on Whidbey Island, WA. Three days in a row I headed out in the early morning darkness on a well-marked trail and three days in a row I got lost.

Yes, it was raining. Yes, it was dark. But three days in a row? There has to be more to the story. And there is: I’m an impatient, fast-acting, things-will-work-out-fine-if-I-just-get-started kind of person. By refusing to slow down, much less stop, I repeatedly failed to see and read the signs – literally and otherwise – that would have kept me on the right path.

On the Leadership Compass that behavior puts me squarely in the North. The compass is a tool I use with both clients and students to help them see their operating preferences accurately and to develop empathy for the operating preferences of others. Just as there is no wrong direction on a compass, there is no wrong leadership personality. Understanding these preferences is key to understanding the persistent and challenging conflicts that take place in organizational settings every day.

After asking a group to sort themselves into one of the following categories, I ask them to discuss the questions that follow:

  • NORTH: Acting – Likes to get going, try things, plunge in.
  • SOUTH: Caring – likes to know that everyone’s feelings have been considered and voices have been heard before acting.
  • EAST: Speculating – likes to look at the big picture and the possibilities before acting.
  • WEST: Paying attention to detail – likes to know the who, what, when, where and why before acting.
  1. What are the strengths of your style?
  2. What are the limitations of your style?
  3. Which style do you find most difficult to work with and why?
  4. What do people from the other “directions” or styles need to know about you so you can work together effectively?
  5. What do you value about the other three styles?

I am comfortable asserting that if I had been accompanied on that forest trail by someone from the WEST, SOUTH or EAST I would not have gotten lost. Besides the additional set of eyes and ears, their different sensibility would have tempered my natural inclination to go too fast.

But since there are times we must act alone, keeping our knowledge of the different Compass elements front of mind, and reminding ourselves that we have the ability if not the preferential comfort to practice them, allows us to avoid being servants to our first impulse.

The dynamics of change will frequently require us to walk in the dark. That does not mean we have to get lost.

Personality Compass – Turner & Greco, 1998
Leadership Compass Self Assessment – Be the Change Consulting, 2010


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Go Do It

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

—Dr. Howard Thurman (1899-1981), theologian and civil rights leader

We are living at such an extraordinary time when it comes to career options and opportunities. It’s a time when the cliché, “You can be anything you want to be” is truer than it has ever been.

Long gone are the days of slotting into a certain professional track or working your way up in a business to enjoy a lifetime of employment. Long, long gone.

In my capacity as a college professor I have the opportunity to formally and informally advise students about their career paths. Inevitably, even those with a pretty good handle on the degree they want to earn are beset by the question of what they want to do with it, what they want to be. And it is, of course, a vital question to answer well. But it is not the most important question.

For years now I have published the same post on Labor Day in which I talk about my personal journey of vocation seeking and finding. It took me a good long time to realize that I was asking the wrong question about how to discover and participate in my life’s work. Those were days made harrowing by feelings of inadequacy and a deep fear of wasted potential…unfulfilled expectations. I bounced around to roles and organizations that sounded good, sounded like me but that weren’t at all for me. I did this enough that I finally sunk into what today would be called a “quarter life crisis.”

I spent an awful lot of energy on “poor me” because I was stuck on that wrong question of “what.” I needed a concrete, black and white answer so badly that the harder I tried to figure it out the more elusive it became.

And when I finally stumbled out of another failed opportunity and sent my plea for meaningful employment into the freshly minted ether of cyberspace, a single response about an unthought of opportunity helped me begin to shift the question.

That most important question, that right question is not “What do you want to be?” but rather “Who do you want to be?”

When I started to ask “who” I was reminded of the best of myself. I was reminded of the times, places, roles and experiences when I felt most alive. And the sensation I felt was not the satisfaction of having an answer, but the appreciation of finally having discovered my compass and my map.

{An enormously grateful hat tip to Cathy Earley for helping me connect the dots.}


DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world. Connect with him on Twitter at @berrydavid.