Dissecting Leadership: Situational Awareness

One of my mentors back from my engineering days and I were talking about The Blair Witch Project. You remember that movie– It was the first-person selfie-cam horror movie shot in black-and-white back around 1999 that revolutionized cheap filmmaking. The basic premise was that three proto-millennials go off into a haunted forest to film a documentary about a fabled evil demon-witch. Along the way, each of our protagonists does a bunch of really dumb things. One throws their map into the river, for example. As their navigational skills were poor to begin with, you can image how this movie ends if you haven’t seen it… and if you haven’t seen it, consider yourself lucky.

My mentor Bob and I were laughing about the ridiculous plot twists and juvenile behavior of the movie’s characters. At one point, Bob commented, “You know, if I had been the star of this movie, it would have been called A Short and Uneventful Walk in the Woods.” Indeed! Bob is an intelligent and thoughtful guy who plans all of his projects out ahead of time. He is quite successful and well-published with lots of enviable network connections. This is the kind of guy who draws the map. There is no chucking-of-maps into the river when he’s around. Bob knows his surroundings. He knows his limits. He knows what boundaries he can push and which ones to avoid. Bob is The Man.

This horror movie cliche is a standard formula. As we watch it, we see the imminent danger of the unsuspecting teen summer campers coming way before they do. This ad from a couple of years ago sums it up well:

So what do we know that those teens don’t? And how does Bob know that his walk in the woods will be so boring? Situational awareness is critical in both cases.


The Japanese manufacturing culture has a concept called gemba. If you haven’t heard of this term before, here’s a quick primer:

Gemba is important. When you “go to the gemba,” you actually visit where the work gets done. You see the obstacles that workers face. If they take twice as long to accomplish a task, you may find that this is because they have to walk between two distant workstations. Putting those workstations closer together may improve your company’s throughput. Would you have known that if you hadn’t seen it with your own eyes? Perhaps. Perhaps not… The concept of gemba is heartily embraced by many lean management practices. If you would like a more detailed example, please take a look at this summary from Kanbanize. There are several other examples and explanations of this idea, but I hope you see its utility. If you take a closer look at how something actually gets done, you may better understand the process. As a result of increasing your situational awareness for a project, you may be in a better position to problem-solve and optimize. Everyone wins.


When you buy a house, you have to walk through its rooms to learn its layout. Similarly, when you start or inherit a project, you usually have to familiarize yourself with its details. Sometimes this is a straightforward process. Other times, unfortunately, there may be a few ghosts hiding in the closets or a trap door leading to a secret passageway… Or you may find an insane portal to a demon dimension hiding in a wall behind your television. Who knows? Buffy the Vampire Slayer didn’t plan on her high school being built on top of a Hellmouth. We’ve all had our little surprises when we take on new roles. So how do we avoid the serial killers and closet zombies?


Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. Sometimes, the monsters pop up when we least expect them. The good news is that if we understand our available resources ahead of time, we have the flexibility to fight them off as they get in our way. If Buffy anticipates vampires, she will bring her bag of wooden stakes when she goes out for her evening walk. Like Buffy, it helps if we think things out a bit before we hit the trail.


When you build a house, you start with a blueprint. In a similar fashion, when you start a project, you need a “blueprint” to follow in case things get confusing along the way. Think of it like a dynamic reference– You can start with one version, but you can update it as things shift along the way.

In this edition’s Downloadable Goodness, I have put together a few exercises to help get you thinking about your project’s parameters. There are four major elements to every project:

  • People — Who are the other people in the mix? This may extend beyond your direct reports who answer to you. What about your colleagues? You might need them for help, but they aren’t obligated to follow your instructions. And what about your management? Who is supporting you in this endeavor?
  • Environment — What are the actual resources you have? Do you need space? Time? Do you need supplies or equipment? Are you missing key elements?
  • Governance — Unfortunately, there are always rules to follow. Some come from external sources such as government regulations or your parent organization. Others are more subtle… Often, cultural conventions affect how people behave when working in a group. Will these expectations enhance or limit your ability to complete your project?
  • Financial — In most situations, but not all, money is a driving factor. Is your project meant to make money? To save money? Often, the answer to one or both of these questions is “yes.” Even if you don’t have a set financial target, you may still need funding to accomplish your goal. Nonprofit organizations need money to continue their services, right? What financial considerations should you take into account during your planning?


In a previous post from The Lonely Surgeon, we talked about the Big Three:

  • Clarity of Vision
  • Situational Awareness
  • Empathy

When we talked about Clarity of Vision in our last post, our goal was to help you bring your raison d’etre into sharp focus: WHY do you have this goal? WHY is this project important? This time, we are taking the next step– This “blueprint” is meant to help you think about what you have available so you can start to see the gaps. What else do you need to achieve your vision? Are you missing anything? Do you need to add a team member with a particular skill? Is your timeline realistic? If you can think about these factors ahead of time, you may be able to fend off those pesky vampires and chainsaw-wielding maniacs.

With a little bit of forethought, your walk in the woods may be quite pleasant.


TLS — The Leadership Blueprint

TLS — The Vision Map

TLS — The Leadership Plan

TLS — The Leadership Map

If you haven’t already looked at the previous worksheets from our Leadership Series, I would encourage you to take a few minutes to do so. My hope is that each little piece of this puzzle is starting to come together in a meaningful way for you. Next time, we’ll tackle the final point from our Big Three!

Until then…


Photo Credit: Peter H | Pixabay

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