Map-Making and Leadership

Leaders need maps to lead. The processes of map-reading, map-testing and map-making have made important contributions to the development of our leaders and civilizations

Maps and Map-making have played an invaluable part in the advancement of human knowledge and discovery processes. Maps in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) have been dated as over nine thousand years ago. Maps have been found in the archeological remains of early civilizations around the world, supporting domestication trade, exploration, and military ventures

The principles of cartography were clarified in the influential writings of Arthur Robinson at the University of Chicago who emphasized that a map is above all something designed with a particular group of users and for some particular purpose or set of purposes. .

The Map is Not The Territory

A well-known saying in management courses is that the map is not the territory. The idea has been popularised by the distinguished organizational theorist Karl Weick in several of his books and lectures. His accounts are based on a poem by Miroslav Holub about a Hungarian reconnaissance unit lost in the Alps. In the poem, the soldiers faced an icy death, until their leader found a map which he used to lead the platoon to safety. On their return, however, it was found that the map was not of the Alps but of the Pyrenees

“we considered ourselves
lost and waited for the end. And then one of us
found a map in his pocket. That calmed us down.
We pitched camp, lasted out the snowstorm and then with the map
we discovered our bearings.
And here we are.
The lieutenant borrowed this remarkable map
and had a good look at it. It was not a map of the Alps
but of the Pyrenees”

The story has been interpreted in various ways. It has been seen as illustaring Weick’s concepts of sense-making, indicating how a map does not have to be accurate to be a means of finding your bearings.

The saying has also become a fundamental principle in the behavioural theory of neurolinguistic programming, in which it stands for the belief that individuals have cognitive structures or maps which provide differing perceptions of their psychological world.

The processes of map-reading, map-testing and map-making are important elements in the text (map) Dilemmas of Leadership.

To go more deeply

Basbøll & Graham, two Danish philosophers, have been untangling the significance of the Weickian anecdote and provide good primary source references. Karl Weick has replied to their article in the same e-journal.


8 Responses to Map-Making and Leadership

  1. Robin J Gleaves says:

    Tudor – interesting stuff for this map buff at least. I tried to follow the link to the Basboll and Graham discussion but it doesn’t appear to be working. (Weick’s response link works)

    Jan and I did a presentation in 2002 entitled Whales, Hungarians and Custard, in which the Hungarians referred to were those same soldiers. I was unable to find a proper source for the story, though, so thanks for the reference.

    Whilst on the topic of maps – it is surely de rigeur to mention the famous Borges story – “On Exactitude in Science” which has a one-to-one map in it:

    “. . . the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.”

    Hope you’re keeping well.

  2. ch53ecc says:

    As a former US Marine Aviator who spent plenty of time reading maps I am a fan of the map. I also use the analogy of maps in my lean & leadership workshops. The interesting bit, that is in contrast to what you suggest regarding the map having to be accurate, is that I say that a map or direction to where you want to go is useless if you do not know where you are!
    In reference to the concept of reading, testing and making maps in a leadership context, I think it is imperative that we build a certain sense of self awareness before attempting to navigate through our leadership journey based on the maps of others. I suppose that is the testing phase of the process but it is important that we always remember that our views/perceptions may be different than those who “wrote” their maps and thus we need to be aware of this prior to attempting to make our new maps.
    I hope that made sense – it did coming out!

  3. Tudor says:

    Reply to ch53ecc and to Robin

    Glad you liked the post. Found you comments fascinating. I’ll check the duff link (It led me to the Weick reply).

    Incidentally, the Weick application of the story seems a bit of poetic licence to me. He uses a sophisticated account of the active ‘sense-making’ processes involved in map-reading, but I casn’t help thinking he is referring to a special ‘crisis’ case – ‘any map in a snow storm’ . And what would have happened if they had had a better map?

    PPS: Have you come across ‘Tornado down’ by John Collins?

    Best wishes


  4. Cordell (ch53ecc) says:

    I actually discussed map reading/testing & making in the workshop this morning, it went down a treat! I am looking forward to seeing Toyota’s map out of their mess tonight on BBC2 @ 2100 (Total Recall: The Toyota Story)

  5. Robin J Gleaves says:

    Tudor – I agree re any map in a storm. If you’re lost and in danger then the risk of moving often outweighs the risk of staying (assuming no outside support – in the days before helicopters and mobile phones, at least).

    But most people seem to get lost when they actually have the right map and an accurate one at that.

    Re the book – I misread it as Joan Collins first, but can’t find a John Collins reference. The AMAC cohorts keep recommending (in the context of Leadership) “Learning to eat soup with a knife” and “Defeat into victory” but I still haven’t read them, to my shame. Will rectify this soon.

    Finally, and sticking with the military and the airforce (ch53ecc), I encountered “the OODA loop” last night and was riveted – observe, orient, decide, and act – a very powerful model from a USAF Colonel, John Boyd.

  6. Tudor says:

    In haste: but thanks. Can see the possibility of too many Collins. In fact it’s John Peters!! (Never was good at names).

    Here’s the ref:

  7. Tudor says:

    Thanks for that. Several colleagues have been reminding me of the Toyota programme (the title is already a delight).

  8. Tudor says:


    Glad to hear you ‘learned from experience’. We have run other interesting workshops on Toyota but I don’t think there was one with such a neat name as the one the BBC hit on!

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