Over the Horizon Strategic Leadership

Strategic LeadershipIn the latter part of the 15th century, Christopher Columbus exercised “over the horizon leadership” within his industry – by heading west instead of east to find the New World. He believed that this direction would yield new benefits and better results for his expedition. But, beyond knowing intuitively or feeling that there would be benefits in this approach, how did Columbus plot a more definitive approach to discover these new lands?

His predicament is not too different to the situation leaders find themselves in when trying to find new opportunities in difficult, uncharted conditions.

In his book on market leadership strategies, Craig Terrill (1) recounts this conversation between the brothers Christopher and Bartholomew Columbus, partners in a chart making business. Christopher had just convinced Queen Isabella to finance his latest expedition to discover the “New World” when his brother asked him: “Why do you think sailing west to the Indies in the right answer? Because everyone confines themselves to what they know – I am interested in what is possible”, Christopher replies.

But knowing that his brother should be better prepared, Bartholomew persists, Since you cannot see beyond the horizon to plot a specific course, how will you know whether to head due west or north-west? And not knowing the precise time when your destination will appear, how do you know whether the voyage is even feasible?

Christopher explained that plotting a course to the west was like making a chart by using a sextant. He believed in the sextant’s ability to combine firsthand, situational information together with the enduring cycles of the stars in order to chart direction.

The two brothers spent weeks going over old captain’s notes, log books and other pieces of information Christopher had accumulated from his previous voyages. Using a sextant, they created a working model of where the most favourable lands would most likely be found. They created a new map, based on the desired destination and star positions, that would guide Columbus at sea. Finally, they determined the distance and time, about two months at sea and some 2,400 miles, to go from Spain to the Indies. (2)

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Similar to Columbus’s navigational sextant, leaders need a tool to navigate and steer their organisations over the horizon. The sextant is an ancient technology used by mariners to chart their direction at sea. It does not predict the future, but provides the captain with a vision of their present and potential future – so enabling them to plan their strategy. It is effective because it is based on things of nature that are true and move in predictable patterns, such as the sun and the stars. In this way the sextant can plot a course that goes over the horizon.

Leaders that operate in turbulent and dynamic markets need a “market sextant” – a tool to enable them to look over the horizon and map out new areas of customer need and competitive advantage. This tool, or way of thinking, will allow them to explore the emerging definition of the market – the new horizon for service and value propositions.

Build you own “market sextant” (3)

How can we use a ‘market sextant’ to better plot our course forward though turbulent and dynamic conditions? We can identify four key elements that provide this “market sextant”:

  1. Study the charts and maps thoroughly
  2. Adopt an explorerLs disposition
  3. Immerse yourself in the journey
  4. Build a chart of the new territory.

Study the charts and maps

The analogy here is to existing research and insight in the market in which you operate. Leadership should be completely familiar with everything there is to know about the market and customers. Do your research and understand the known terrain.

Adopt an explorer’s disposition

Explorers are alert to their environment. They treat everything as new, or potentially new. Because of that, they remain alert for differences and nuances in the terrain. This is akin to ’emptying’ the mind of pre-conceived notions and pet theories. The Zen concept of ‘beginners mind’ is helpful here, as it allows the observer to observe the signals and stimuli free of any existing models or offerings (4).

Immerse yourself in the journey

This is not an armchair explorer adventure. This is about BEING there. There is little substitute for leaders getting out and about in their market and with their customers. Recent breakthroughs in ethnographic research now create opportunities for researchers to examine how customers go about their daily business first-hand, rather than via focus groups or questionnaires. This produces new levels of understanding of the customer situation and unearths new ways to add value via your products and services.

Build a chart of the new territory

Map out the new opportunities for adding value by creating Customer Value Propositions (CVPs). CVPs outline the value that your new product or service will bring to the customer – even though you may not have developed or built it as yet. This becomes the goal that sits over the horizon for your organisation. If possible, express the CVP in behavioural terms – explain what it will do for the customer and how this will add value to their situation.

By following these steps, leaders can build their own “market sextant” for navigating through turbulent and dynamic environments.

Happy sailing!


  1. Craig Terrill;Market Leadership Strategies for Service Companies; 1999.
  2. Craig Terrill, op cit
  3. Adapted from Craig Terrill, op cit
  4. The emptying of the mind should occur AFTER a study of the research and history. The irony is that this best prepares the mind for thinking about the new possibilities.

One Response to Over the Horizon Strategic Leadership

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