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Leading with Character: The Art of Introspection

If the navigator doesn’t shift the setting to true plot, it’s easy to lose track of the bigger picture and what the other vessels are doing.

During the past couple of years as we struggled through the COVID pandemic, many of us had time for introspection. Introspection can come in the form of journaling, keeping a diary, reflecting on one’s life circumstances, and much more. Surely, introspection can be a useful tool in one’s pursuit of being a better person, and a better leader.

Looking back, do you think the moments you may have spent in introspection during the COVID times helped or hindered you? I think the answer depends on how you approach being introspective: it’s an art.

David Brooks wrote a thoughtful piece on introspection for the New York Times. I like his premise that people shouldn’t look at themselves with a magnifying glass when being introspective but, rather, look at the bigger context of where they fit with the world:

“Maturity is moving from the close-up to the landscape, focusing less on your own supposed strengths and weaknesses and more on the sea of empathy in which you swim, which is the medium necessary for understanding others, one’s self and survival.”

Navigating the Sea of Life

Speaking of the sea, in the sea services we use surface search radar to help us safely navigate. The radar shows us where we are in relation to other vessels, objects, and land masses. There are two settings for the radar: relative plot and true plot. When a navigator places the radar in true plot, the ship appears on the screen just as it fits with its surroundings in the operating area.

When a navigator changes the radar to relative plot, the ship appears at the center of activity in the operating area. All the other vessels and objects appear on the screen in relation to the subject ship. Relative plot is useful in performing collision-avoidance calculations, which can’t be performed in the same way in true plot. So, it could appear to be safer and better to remain in relative plot.

Stuck in Relative Plot

But if the navigator doesn’t shift the setting to true plot, it’s easy to lose track of the bigger picture and what the other vessels are doing. That can lead the ship to sail into a dangerous situation the navigator can’t anticipate. Translating the nautical radar analogy to leadership, when a person is unwilling to change and can’t see beyond their own interests, one could say they’re “stuck in relative plot.”

Looking Over the Horizon

In addition to the relative and true plot settings, radars have range settings. The navigator can put the radar on a close-in scale that only detects other vessels, objects, or land masses that are nearby. The short-range scale is good for managing a close-quarters situation such as entering a port, or passing another vessel at close range. There are also settings that go out over the horizon so the navigator can anticipate what’s coming next. This is what Mr. Brooks would call “moving from the close-up to the landscape.”

Good leaders, like good navigators, understand the need to shift between relative and true plot, and between the short- and long-range scales. Leaders who have matured in the art of introspection avoid looking through that magnifying glass Mr. Brooks mentioned, focusing too closely on themselves and/or the burning issue at hand. They keep a broader perspective by stepping back and examining the bigger picture.

Introspection can help leaders better understand and manage their people and programs. But the art comes in being able to sense when to shift focus from an individual to the team, or from a pressing tactical issue to a longer-term strategic goal or objective.

Look in the mirror. Are you “stuck in relative plot” or do you step back and take a broader perspective?

Please join me again in two weeks for more on Leading with Character.

If you enjoyed this post, please visit my website where you can buy my book, Breaking Ice & Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters, and sign up for my mailing list: https://sandrastosz.com/book/breaking-ice-and-breaking-glass/

Sandra L. Stosz
Vice Admiral Stosz, a Homeland Security Today editorial board member, started out in the U.S. Coast Guard as an ensign serving on polar icebreakers, conducting national security missions from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Her 40-year career is filled with leadership lessons gleaned while breaking ice and breaking glass as the first woman to command an icebreaker on the Great Lakes and to lead a U.S. armed forces service academy. She finished her career as the first woman assigned as Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, directing one of the Coast Guard’s largest enterprises. She has lectured widely on leadership, and has been featured on CSPAN and other media outlets. In 2012, Newsweek’s “The Daily Beast” named Vice Admiral Stosz to their list of 150 Women who Shake the World. Proceeds from “Breaking Ice and Breaking Glass: Leading in Uncharted Waters” will be donated to the US Coast Guard Academy James M. Loy Institute for Leadership.

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