Stephen R. Covey
When managing in the wilderness of the changing times, a map is of
limited worth. What's needed is a moral compass. When I was in New York
recently, I witnessed a mugging skillfully executed by a street gang. I'm
sure that the members of this gang have their street maps, their common
values-the highest value being, don't fink or squeal on each other, be
true and loyal to each other-but this value, as it's interpreted and
practiced by this gang, does not represent "true north"-the
magnetic principle of respect for people and property. They lacked an
internal moral compass. Principles are like a compass. A compass has a
true north that is objective and external, that reflects natural laws or
principles, as opposed to values which are
subjective and internal. Because the compass represents the eternal
verities of life, we must develop our value system with deep respect for
"true north" principles.
As Cecil B. deMille said about the principles in his movie, The Ten
Commandments: It is impossible for us to break the law. We can only break
ourselves against the law.
Principles are proven, enduring guidelines for human conduct. Certain
principles govern human effectiveness. The six major world religions all
teach the same basic core beliefs-such principles as "you reap what
you sow" and "actions are more important than words." I
find global consensus around what "true north" principles are.
These are not difficult to detect. They are objective, basic, unarguable:
"You can't have trust without being trustworthy" and "You
can't talk yourself out of a problem you behave yourself into."
There is little disagreement in what the constitutional principles of a
company should be when enough people get together. I find a universal
belief in: fairness, kindness, dignity, charity, integrity, honesty,
quality, service, patience.
Consider the absurdity of trying to live a life or run a business based
on the opposites. I doubt that anyone would seriously consider unfairness,
deceit, baseness, uselessness, mediocrity or degradation to be a solid
foundation for lasting happiness and success.
People may argue about how these principles are to be defined,
interpreted and applied in real-life situations, but they generally agree
about their intrinsic merit. They may not live in total harmony with them,
but they believe in them. And, they want to be managed by them. They want
to be evaluated by "laws" in the social and economic dimensions
that are just as real, just as unchanging and unarguable, as laws such as
gravity are in the physical dimension.
In any serious study of history-be it national or corporate-the reality
and verity of such principles become obvious. These principles surface
time and again, and the degree to which people in a society recognize and
live in harmony with them moves them toward either survival and stability
or disintegration and destruction.
In a talk show interview, I was once asked if Hitler was
principal-centered. "No," I said, "but he was value-driven.
One of his governing values was to unify Germany. But he violated compass
principles and suffered the natural consequences. And the consequences
were momentous-the dislocation of the entire world for years."
In dealing with self-evident, natural laws, we can choose either to
manage in harmony with them or to challenge them by working some other
way. Just as the laws are fixed, so too are the consequences. In my
seminars, I ask audiences, "When you think of your personal values,
how do you think?" Typically, people focus on what they want. I then
ask them, "when you think of principles, how do you think?" They
are more oriented toward objective law, listening to conscious, tapping
into eternal verities. Principles are not values. The German Nazis, like
the street gang members, shared values, but these violated basic
Values are maps. Principles are territories. And the maps are not the
territories; they are only subjective attempts to describe or represent
the territory. The more closely our maps are aligned with correct
principles-with the realties of the territory, with things as they are-the
more accurate and useful they will be. Correct maps will impact our
effectiveness far more than our efforts to change attitudes and behaviors.
However, when the territory is constantly changing, when the markets are
constantly shifting, any map is soon obsolete.
A Compass for the Times
In today's world, what's needed is a compass. A compass consists of a
magnetic needle swinging freely and pointing to magnetic north. It's also
a mariner's instrument for directing or ascertaining the course of ships
at sea as well as an instrument for drawing circles and taking
measurements. The word compass may also refer to the reach, extent, limit
or boundary of a space or time; a course, circuit or range; an intent,
purpose or design; an understanding or comprehension. All of these
connotations enrich the meaning of the metaphor.
Why is a compass better than a map in today's business world? I see
several compelling reasons why the compass is so invaluable to corporate
The compass orients people to the coordinates and indicates a course or
direction even in forests, deserts, seas and open, unsettled terrain. As
the territory changes, the map becomes obsolete; in times of rapid change,
a map may be dated and inaccurate by the time it's printed. Inaccurate
maps are a frustration for people who are trying to find their way or
Many executives are pioneering, managing in uncharted waters or
wilderness, and no existing map accurately describes the territory. To get
anywhere very fast, we need refined processes and clear channels of
production and distribution (freeways), and to find or create freeways in
the map provides description, but the compass provides more vision and
An accurate map is a good management tool, but a compass is a
leadership and an empowerment tool. People who have been using maps for
many years to find their way and maintain a sense of perspective and
direction should realize that their maps may be useless in the current
maze and wilderness of management. My recommendation is that you exchange
your map for a compass and train yourself and your people how to navigate
by a compass calibrated to a set of fixed, true north principles and
Map-versus-compass orientation is an important strategic issue, as
reflected in the statement by Mr. Matsushitu, president of the Japan's
giant consumer electronic company: We are going to win and the industrial
West is going to lose because the reasons for your failure are within
yourselves: for you, the essence of management is to get the ideas out of
the heads of the bosses into the hands of labor. The important thing here
is stated reason for our "failure." We are locked into certain
mindsets or paradigms, locked into management by maps, locked into an old
model of leadership where the experts at the top decide the objectives,
methods, and means.
This old strategic planning model is obsolete. It's a road map. It
calls for people at the top to exercise their experience, expertise,
wisdom and judgment and set ten-year strategic plans-only to find that the
plans are worthless within eighteen months. In the new environment, with
speed to market timetables of eighteen months instead of five years, plans
become obsolete fast.
Peter Drucker has said: "Plans are worthless, but planning is
invaluable." And if our planning is centered on an overall purpose or
vision and on a commitment to a set of principles, then the people who are
closest to the action in the wilderness can use that compass and their own
expertise and judgment to make decisions and take actions. In effect, each
person may have his or her own compass; each may be empowered to decide
objectives and make plans that reflect the realities of the new market.
Principles are not practices. Practices are specific activities or
actions that work in one circumstance but not necessarily in another. If
you manage by practices and lead by policies, your people don't have to be
the experts; they don't have to exercise judgment, because all of the
judgment and wisdom is provided them in the form of rules and regulations.
If you focus on principles, you empower everyone who understands those
principles to act without constant monitoring, evaluating, correcting or
controlling. Principles have universal application. And when these are
internalized into habits, they empower people to create a wide variety of
practices to deal with different situations.
Leading by principles, as opposed to practices, requires a different
kind of training, perhaps even more training, but the payoff is more
expertise, creativity, and shared responsibility at all levels of the
If you train people in the practices of customer service, you will get
a degree of customer service, but the service will break down whenever
customers present a special case or problem because in doing so they
short-circuit the Standard Operating Procedure system.
Before people will consistently act on the principle of customer
service, they need to adopt a new mindset. In most cases, they need to be
trained-using cases, role plays, simulations and some on-the-job
coaching-to be sure they understand the principle and how it is applied on
With the Compass, We Can Win "A compass in every pocket" is
better than "a chicken in every pot" or a car in every garage.
With moral compassing, we can beat Japan. My view is that the Japanese
subordinate the individual to the group to the extent that they don't tap
into the creative and resourceful capacities of people-one indication
being that they have had only two Nobel Prize winners compared to 186 in
the U.S. The highest leadership principle is win-win interdependency,
where you are both high on individual and high on team. But once people
start to realize that this "compass" is going to be the basis
for evaluation, including leadership style of the people at the top, they
tend to feel very threatened.
The president of a major corporation recently asked me to meet with him
and his management team. He said that they were all too concerned with
reserving their own management style. He said that the corporate mission
statement had no impact on their style. These executives felt that the
mission was for the people "out there" who were subject to the
law, but that they were above the law. The idea of moral compassing is
unsettling to people who think they are above the law. Because the
constitution, based on principles, is the law-it governs everybody,
including the president. It places responsibility on individuals to
examine their lives and determine if they are willing to live by it.
All Are Accountable to the
Laws and Principles
I'm familiar with several poignant examples of major U.S. corporations
telling their consultants, "We can't continue to do market
feasibility studies and strategic studies independent of our culture and
people." These executives understand what Michael Porter has said:
"A implementation with B strategy is better than A strategy with B
We must deal with people/culture issues to improve the implementation
of strategy and to achieve corporate integrity. We must be willing to go
through a constitutional convention, if not a revolutionary war, to get
the issues out on the table, deal with them and get deep buy in on the
decisions. That won't happen without some blood, sweat and tears.
Ultimately, the successful implementation of any strategy hinges on the
integrity people have to the governing principles and on their ability to
apply those principles in any situation using their own moral compass.
© 1996, 1998 Covey Leadership
Center and Franklin Covey. All rights reserved.