Lessons from Lincoln on True North, and the Perils of the Journey

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 12-21-20

Any transformation has a fundamental challenge embedded, that is you are on a journey into new territory. That’s what makes it transformational. This means that you can’t see the destination from where you stand. You must look beyond the horizon, and know that the destination is out there. This requires vision, strategic thinking, and confidence in your ability to safely navigate from where you are to where you want to be, likely with an imperfect map. 


Two ingredients are necessary for such navigation. In the literal sense of a journey, you need a compass or other means to find true north, and you need a map good enough to navigate a path. Neither is sufficient alone. 


In an organizational journey, it’s the same two ingredients. You need to know the direction of true north. Whether this is your own vision, one generated collaboratively, one shared with you from a thought leader…you need to know where you want to end up. There are numerous terms that people have used to describe this, including ideal state, target condition, true north, tangible image, vision statement, destination statement, and others. 


It is important that this ideal state that you are pursuing meets a few criteria. First, it must be clear enough (or true enough) that it will guide you. Second, it must be beyond the horizon, meaning it is far enough out in the future that it will require a journey and not just a single improvement or step forward. And third, it must be worth it. What’s in it for me? What’s in it for them? Transformational journeys are hard, and must be worth the effort and pushing through the risk of failure. 


But the ideal state, or true north, is not enough. It is very rare that you can travel in a straight line. I was reminded of this during a scene of the movie Lincoln, which I recently rewatched, based on the book Team of Rivals by the fantastic presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. President Lincoln is debating the approach to ending slavery with Pennsylvanian congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Abolishing slavery is an element of true north that they both are passionately pursuing, and so there is no disagreement there. The struggle is the pathway, the journey, the navigation. I won’t pretend to know whether Lincoln or Stevens is more right in their navigation, but Lincoln has an eloquent description of true north versus the navigation in this passage: 


“A compass, I learned while I was surveying, it’ll point you true north from where you’re standing but it’s got no advice about the swamps, deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp…what’s the use of knowing true north?”



Now, the journey that Lincoln and Stevens were navigating was far more consequential than the journeys that many of us consider, but the challenge remains. Knowing true north is not enough. Where you are right now, if you just go north, you will undoubtedly run into a barrier, and likely early and often. You must understand what the barriers are, and which ones you can go through, go around, or build a bridge to go over. 


On your transformational journey, there are many things that come together to help. Having a guide who’s been on the journey before, whether inside or outside the company, is helpful. Planning can be helpful. Taking small steps, experimenting, and learning along the way, reduces the risk of taking the wrong path. Allowing for “scouts” where small parts of your organization go ahead of the rest (what I often refer to as an inch-wide, mile-deep strategy) can help generate learning of the path ahead. The key is, you must navigate the journey. There are likely many wrong ways, and there is also no single right way. Those who preach a “right” path to true north are either inexperienced or close-minded to the many paths to get from point A to point B. 


So, develop your true north, develop your set of resources to help you navigate, and begin your transformation journey.