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.