13 Dec 2018 20:04 IST

Why a pilgrim leader scores over a nomadic one

The business world is better led by people focused on the destination than by wanderers from the path

It’s the Christmas season and the three wise men play an important part in the Christmas story. They were shown a star, that they were told would lead them to the newborn baby Jesus. So, they set out on a pilgrimage. Crossing deserts and encountering several obstacles, they resolutely follow the star, until finally they reach the manger in Bethlehem where they present their gifts to the baby Jesus.

On their journey they would have encountered another set of people wandering through the deserts — we would call them nomads. And there lies a parallel for leadership. Are we nomad leaders or pilgrim leaders? What makes a pilgrim leader different from a nomad one?


The nomad leader is moving forward but often sees sights and places that take him off the path. He is easily distracted. He follows the local flavour. Side roads look interesting to him. His eyes often wander from the path, looking for a place to pitch tent.

The pilgrim leader on the other hand is focused on the destination and on getting there. Like the wise men, the goal or mission becomes the guiding star, and the focus on that is what makes the pilgrim leader different. She knows where she is going and stays on the path to that destination. No side roads for her. She sees them as a distraction from the destination. She knows they will waste her time and energy and she presses on.

For the leader manager, distractions could come in the form of new product diversification ideas even before the current ones have been fully established, new markets before old ones have been fully explored, new companies to acquire while the present one is still finding its feet. She has to stop being a nomad, stop wandering at the slightest distraction and stay focused on the goal ahead.

This does not mean the pilgrim is rigid. She recognises obstacles and adapts. She may sometimes take a different route to avoid danger that puts the whole journey at risk.

Snapdeal made this mistake. As its co-founders acknowledged in an honest and humble e-mail to the team: “We started growing our business much before the right economic model and market-fit was figured out. We also started diversifying and started new projects while we still hadn’t perfected the first or made it profitable.” Pilgrims who became nomads.

On the move

The nomad wanders, but often settles down. The nomad plants tents and stays close to where he’s found some resources. But the pilgrim leader is always on the way. She displays an unwillingness to settle down. She is ready to let go of the shelter of the previous night, so that she may be on the path to her destination again. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, described the ideal Jesuit as one living with ‘one foot raised’ — ready to take on the next opportunity.

This difference emerges even among students in the classroom today, and will come up later as we grow in our careers. Some leaders settle into what we could call ‘cruise control’ roles. They are comfortable, they coast along, they have fallen into a routine, they are no longer stretched.

The pilgrim leader is unhappy with this situation. She seeks out new challenges, is willing to take on emerging opportunities. She believes that ‘cruise control’ kills growth. When she finds herself comfortably able to handle her job or role, she sees it as an alert signal. She meets the boss, asks for new assignments that will challenge her. The pilgrim leader recognises that often there is a thin line between stability and stagnation.

UFC Wrestling Champion George St. Pierre once said: “I always train with better wrestlers than me, better boxers than me, better jujitsu guys than me. When you train with people who are better than you, it keeps challenging you. By challenging me it makes me better. It makes you better develop your skills than someone who is always training with the same people over and over again.”

This is a pilgrim thinker who does not want to stay in cruise control. This is an attitude that we must have the courage to adopt. If we are committed to personal growth and development, we can’t afford to be nomads. This involves a letting go of the past ‘achievement zone’ and going back to being a beginner, in a never ending cycle of learning and innovation.

Peter Drucker refers to the example of Henry Ford. Henry Ford started off as a pilgrim, eager to revolutionise the way people were transported. His Model-T was a runaway success. But then he settled down. His right-hand man — a pilgrim leader — James Couzens urged him to move on, from the success of the Model-T and start work on a successor model. Ford disagreed and eventually forced Couzens out. Soon after, the Ford Motor Company went into a tailspin. He refused to let go of the Model-T for 10 long years till it was virtually an eyesore.

Steve Jobs summed it up well: “I think if you do something and it turns out pretty good, then you should go do something else wonderful, and not dwell on it for too long.”


The nomad is more focused on making a living. The pilgrim is focused on making a life. The nomad is looking for food and water around the corner. He will stop, as soon as he finds it. The pilgrim is driven by where she is headed. Her destination gives meaning to every step she takes. It inspires her, gives her the motivation, the energy and the stamina she needs for the journey. So, a pilgrim chooses carefully before she sets off — where should I be going on a pilgrimage to?

Masayoshi Son, Softbank’s CEO, said that when he started his entrepreneurial journey, he listed down about 40 different new business ideas. Then he created 25 success measures, that he applied to filter those ideas.

“One success measure was that I should fall in love with a particular business for the next 50 years at least. Very often, people get excited for the first few years, and then, after they see the reality, they get tired of the business. I wanted to choose one that I would feel more and more excited about as the years passed.” Now that’s pilgrim thinking for you.

The world, and especially the business world, needs less nomads and more pilgrims. Which one are you?