View RSS Feed


Immolation 05-23-2010 Adventures in Leadership

Rate this Entry
by , 05-24-2010 at 12:40 AM (2347 Views)
Some of you who've bothered to read my blogs have probably wondered what, if anything, they have to do with cartography. I admit that oftentimes, any relationship I could come up with would seem tenuous at best. That's a shame in some ways, because cartography itself is a subject spanning all nations and all of recorded history. It is art and literature, biology, geography, geology, business, finance, science, mythology, history, lore, fantasy... I am hard-put to find a single aspect of human experience that doesn't in some direct way relate back to cartography.

The art of making the complex simple speaks to the very purpose of cartography. A man in a saddle or on his feet upon the deck of a ship instinctively recognize the problem that cartography attemps to solve: we can only know what we can see. Memories supplement that of course, but memories of lands and seas that we have witnessed from our earth-bound eyes are very subjective, yielding only an impression of "when I stand here, this is what I see". Trying to impart that knowledge to someone else by describing the view is difficult.

So one day, probably well before history was written down, a primitive man squatted down in the dirt and drew an "x" and explained to his hunting party that "we are here". Then he perhaps drew a circle and said "this is the big oak tree", and then with some squiggly shapes further along, "these are the elk". Suddenly, these primitive fellows could envision spacial relationships in a form simplified to such a basic level in such a dramatically clear fashion, that from that point on, whenever the hunters thought about that area, they would immediately superimpose the image of that map over their thoughts.

Think about it for youself. I have been in every state in the United States except Hawaii. I've been in every province of Canada, and Greenland, and a variety of European countries. Yet without maps, I would have only rough ideas of where things were in relation to one another. In fact, I'd probably think only in terms of where one place I'd been was in relation to another place I'd been. Maps codify spacial relationships. The shape of a country or a continent or an island becomes iconic and when we think of that place, we see in our minds a map. Try to think of the US or whatever your home country is without that distinctive and familiar map not hovering around in your mind, trying to superimpose itself.

Maps allow us to give shape to that which, to humans, is relatively shapeless... the ground around us. Sure we know what that mountain looks like or we can recognize this road or that stream that we've fished up and down countless times. But we could spend our lives doing nothing but walking up and down that stream and we still wouldn't have as accurate a spacial understanding of it as someone who simply studied it for a short time on a map. In fact, if you're anything like me, you've probably found yourself looking at a map of a place that you are intimately familiar with and seeing realities that you didn't realize were there. Down here in Florida, my most common such epiphany is: "Wow, I didn't realize there was a lake over there."

But what does any of this have to do with leadership? I'm glad you asked. I returned on Friday from a week in Cincinnati (beautiful city by the way), where I spent my time with a group of hugely-talented individuals from around my company, a diverse group from seven countries and of assorted races. The story isn't about the group, although there are many stories to tell there and I'll probably indulge myself more than once in the future. Instead, this is about the subject that we were there to learn about, which was leadership.

Now for those of you, like me, who got a lot of their leadership training in the 80's, I have to tell you that things have changed. They've changed for the better. In fact, for those of us weaned on Maslow's heirarchy of needs, it's a quantum leap. It is a vast subject with countless theories, practices and philosophies ascribed to it, but I'm not here to teach you about leadership... at least not directly. I am here to tell you how the proper role of a leader and a cartographer are nearly identical.

Managers manage. They manage inventory and finances and payroll and how their direct reports spend their time. They are like cowboys, using their horses, dogs and voices to maneuver the heard to where they want them to be. A leader is a manager as well, but a manager does not have to be a leader. Take a moment, if you will, to separate those two roles in your mind before we proceed.

Leaders inspire. They inspire loyalty, confidence, urgency, creativity, pride, determination... all of the admirable and worthwhile traits can be inspired by a leader, and the best of them can inspire the one thing, or the several things, that are most helpful for the moment. They do this by taking the complex, and often unknown elements of a situation and distilling them into a clear and unambiguous vision. A leader has a broad perspective of the environment in which their team operations, and uses that perspective to understand what is important, then boil that down to the precise combination needed to give the team a framework from which they can build with the surety of someone who confident in their knowledge of how to proceed.

A cartographer uses the techniques of a leader to accomplish the same task a leader accomplishes, only for a narrow (but hugely important) context: spatial relationships. Even the smallest piece of ground or ocean is infinitely complex. At every scale, there are countless elements comprising the space as observed. A continental map is composed of vast stretches of land and sea, each with notable characteristics, and each different from the bit adjoining it. A map of a single square foot likewise has elements of infinite variety... shapes, sizes, compositions, characteristics etc. Either has far more information than can be conveyed, much like the world of business or government or whatever it is that you do to put food on the table.

Our job, like the leaders, is to sift through that infinite complexity and to extract those few things that are most important and that we (and those we serve) can wrap our minds around and use as a clear roadmap (business term... coincidence?) to reach our goals. I know you've heard before that the map that conveys information simplest and clearest is the best map. That is a principle more often observed in the breach here, I'm afraid, owing to our collective love for art.

Creating a map is an exercise in leading your audience to a clear understanding of the spacial relationships existing between two or more points. If the users of your map will have little or no use for the areas covered by forest, you leave that information off. Political demographics aren't interesting to most people looking at a railroad map, so that stays off as well. Unnecessary elements may be a distraction, just as business information unrelated to the task at hand can cause your team to take their eyes off of their purpose.

Understand that for maps as art, all of these restrictions are meaningless. Most of what we create here is for entertainment purposes and qualifies as art. The same is can be true of "real" maps as well of course. Many of the maps created by the ancients were more fantasy than anything else, and even in extremely accurate and utilitarian maps, artistic flourishes were rife throughout the map. I suspect that many of our cartographical forefathers (and mothers) were frustrated artists.

I'd love to share more insight into what I've learned about human nature, relationships and how these things relate to cartography, but it's late and tomorrow is another day. Thanks for your time and attention!


  1. tilt's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    very insightful
    And looking at the maps produced here (or displayed here) it truly are artist at work, although I guess we've laid the frustration behind us, and thank god for that. I for one would not be here if the maps accepted only were the simplest possible, only conveying the absolute necessary without any embellishment - I love the embellishment as much as I love minimalism in much of my other work outside cartography. I think some of the compasses I've uploaded displays both styles
    I truly enjoy looking at all the beautiful maps and great ideas that people have in here
    And *beep* Maslow, we're going straight for the top
  2. Immolate's Avatar
    • |
    • permalink
    I am all about the self-actualization.