Explorer vs. Commander

by Lane Wallace on April 17, 2009

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the contrasting styles of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin — “birth twins” who both had to find their way forward through uncharted territory in order to accomplish their historic feats. I contrasted the challenges of Darwin, the explorer, with Lincoln, the commander. But it occurs to me those different roles impact more than just the challenges a person faces on an uncharted journey. They also impact the ways in which we gather and process information and navigate our way through unknown waters. Because explorers and commanders have very different goals.

The explorer (or student), doesn’t have a set destination in mind. The goal is to explore; to learn and try to understand what a new or unknown territory contains. This kind of navigation is an open-ended, expansive process of adding more and more data to the equation. No direction or step is necessarily wrong, because it all can reveal information that might be interesting or illuminating.

The commander, on the other hand, has a very definite goal or mission in mind. The territory that lies in between may be uncharted, but every piece of information, and every navigational decision, is weighed against how likely it is to achieve the end destination and goal. A commander’s job isn’t to gather as much information as possible. It’s to sort through the available information and make the best possible decision about where to go next, based on that limited data.

If you imagine a funnel, the explorer starts at the narrow end, collecting a widening amount of data as they go along. The commander starts at the wide end, winnowing down the available data to reach a clear and narrow decision point. Which is not to say the commander has narrow vision. That quick process of winnowing available data may be repeated almost constantly as the commander moves along, processing ever-changing data and factors into continuous course corrections. Likewise, the explorer doesn’t necessarily wander around aimlessly. The explorer may have a starting destination in mind … it’s just not set in stone, or the prime goal of the journey.

Neither method of navigation is inherently superior. They just achieve different ends. The explorer’s approach is more likely to lead to greater understanding of places, issues, people or the world. The commander’s approach is more likely to accomplish a set goal or task.

Often, a trailblazer is completely in one school of navigation or the other. But not always. On January 20th, I wrote a post about how President Barack Obama’s story offered a role model for young people of what you can accomplish if you’re willing to chart the course you truly believe to be right for you, even against the odds and the advice of “conventional wisdom.” But how did he navigate that personal course? Was it as an explorer? Or a commander? I think the answer is … both. And therein lies an intriguing lesson.

I haven’t done extensive research into Obama’s life and history. But from the plethora of mainstream articles already written about him, it seems clear that from an early stage in life, Obama was a voracious reader and explorer of ideas in conversation and study. He delved into reading various philosophers’ approaches, including the social activism of Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr (which would later so impress conservative columnist David Brooks), and spent time learning about and living in different cultures. He considered careers ranging from basketball and community organizing to becoming a judge. Like many young people, he tried different directions, not sure which one would stick. But his expansive, exploratory efforts contributed to his ability to understand and embrace complex world and cultural issues. My guess is also that he wasn’t wandering aimlessly through all that exploring. He was figuring out what direction, or directions, resonated and felt purposeful to him.

But at some point, Obama decided he wanted to pursue a career in politics. And then at a not-so-much-later second point, he decided to pursue the Presidency, itself. At that point, he became the commander. The goal was clear. The question was how best to get to that goal, given that there wasn’t any clear path to follow. The process could be described as: Lay out a plan based on what I believe and want to accomplish, as well as what we know about technology, politics, how to reach voters, and how to amass a coalition. Then take new inputs and events as they happen, winnow through the options and information we have and adjust course as necessary—but always with an eye toward that single, unchanging goal and destination.

Without the open-minded searching of his youth, Obama wouldn’t have amassed the comprehension and deftness with complex issues in politics and the world to compete successfully against more experienced politicians. But without the single-minded vision and fast, decisive reflexes of a commander, he couldn’t have led his forces through the perilous swamps of a national campaign to reach the goal.

Which is not to say that now, as Commander-in-Chief, Obama is only navigating as a commander. In fact, I think part of Obama’s success so far—like the success of any master navigator of uncharted territory—lies in his ability to move back and forth so fluidly between the two modes of navigation: exploring new subjects to gain better understanding, and then folding that understanding back into command decisions that gain forward movement toward a chosen goal.

The combination may sound like a basic skill set, but I can name many more commanders who lack curiosity, or curious minds who lack disciplined command ability, than I can name people who’ve mastered a dynamic and effective balance between the two. Worth thinking about.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Craig 04.18.09 at 7:57 pm

I think you hit the nail on the head here. One reason that Obama remains such an enigma to some people is that he’s shown a clear willingness to explore new opportunities and uncharted territory, while retaining the ability to make a command decision on the fly, if necessary. For too long, the country seemed to have leaders who feared they would be seen as weak if they went outside the accepted boundaries of their party. I think (or at least I hope) that Obama’s ability to move “so fluidly between the two modes of navigation,” as you so eloquently put it, will show the clear advantages of such a dynamic approach.

2 david foster 04.19.09 at 1:48 pm

Not sure the distinction between explorer and commander is really that absolute. A good startup CEO, for instance, has characteristics of both.

The CEO of John Deere (I think it was) had some very nice words on the nature of the executive job…can’t find the exact quote, but it was along the lines of “go into the thicket of ambiguity and wrestle with it and then come out the other side with clarity.” Two ways to fail are (a)never go into the thicket in the first place; don’t look at the problem in a way that could jeopardize your preconceived ideas, and (b)stay in the thicket and keep admiring the complexity and the ambiguity rather than realizing that any decision you can make will necessarily be imperfect.

There’s an interesting (though not terribly well-written) book called “The Art of What Works” (by William Duggan) that attempts to apply the military theories of Clausewitz and Jomini to business, with the author’s clear preference being for those of Clausewitz…more focused on the flash of intuition and the opportunity of the moment, as opposed to the formal-planning orientation of Jomini.

3 Paul Creasy 05.12.09 at 9:58 am

It strikes me that what you are describing with Lincoln, Obama, and Darwin are traits of leadership, with the former two leaders of men and with the last a thought leader. That alone suggests other parameters for consideration: loyalty, a craving for order, dedication, and the offering of a strong narrative.

Loyalty looms large in the personality of a commander, whether it be a Lincoln or an Obama. Any commander demands loyalty, but the ideal commander returns loyalty to those beneath him. In contrast, an explorer’s loyalty to persons is probably limited to his sponsor or benefactor. Rather, his main loyalty is to truth or to events.

A commander’s appetite is to control, to render order from chaos, whether it be wielding his subordinates into an effective organization or dominating events to satisfy his vision and charge. An explorer, on the other hand, assumes a more passive role. He allows events to unfold without intervention and analyzes and publishes their results. This, of course, creates its own form of order.

Both commanders and explorers exhibit strong senses of duty, with corresponding risks from obsession. The commander may suffer from target fixation to indifference of the consequences. There is a reason for the old expression, “you can never beat the low flying record; you can only tie it.” Similarly, the obsessive explorer may become vulnerable to reduction to a prophet without honor.

Some years ago I came across a book (whose title I forget) with the premise that a good leader always had a good story underlying his leadership. While that notion in isolation is simplistic, there is no doubt that leadership is accompanied by and supported to some degree by a good narrative. In the case of the commander, the story consists of both his history and his quest. For the explorer, the story is a work in progress until and unless delivered to its intended audience.

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