Why Leaders Should Learn Geography

Kirk Goldsberry mentioned in “The Importance of Spatial Thinking” that “Harvard eradicated its Geography Department in the 1940′s, and many universities followed suit”. Indeed, not only has geography never been part of business programs, it gradually vanished from education fields that matter in prestigious schools, with no major revival since the 1940′s.

Today, it is still suffering from an inaccurate split between a “physical” and a “human” branch, themselves sub-divided into multiple precarious sub-fields that make everybody, including geographers themselves, feel embarrassed and confused about their own discipline. Having so much trouble defining what geography is played a big role in its disappearance from business and management programs.

That lack of interest in geography as a field of study has also to do with the fact that it is still perceived as the “art” of exploring and mapping the world with a telescope from an old sailboat, counting rocks and drawing exotic landscapes with a nib, while sipping some exotic cocktails.  Not only is geography (still) seen as some sort of poetic leisure activity by the business world, it is now reduced to location devices and mapping gadgets since technology progress put GPS and Google Earth on every smartphone.

Well, we got it wrong. Geography is not the  science that tries to naïvely explain the world just by describing its surface anymore, and it has nothing to do with naming all the capital cities of central America, nor with the ability to use the location feature on Pinterest.

Today’s geography is an angle from which to look at the world, embrace its complexity, a way to get a sense of human flows, behaviour trends, cultural influences, market evolutions, balance of powers between institutions, companies, governments, from a global to a very local perspective. It is a way of thinking that crosses time and space at any possible scale to see and understand what is happening. It connects the dimensions of the world – societies, environment, economy, politics, finance, psychology… – by offering unique key concepts and theoretical tools.

As Big data is becoming one of the biggest economic challenges of our time,  being able to connect several layers of thematic information, to cross it with multiple time and space scales,  to process complexity to end up with several prioritized solutions is not an optional skill for leaders. Decision makers need to know about not only wide general processes such as globalisation, cultural preferences and religious beliefs and demographic trends, but also about regional consumption habits, local specificities, small-group social psychology and behaviour.

Having a good knowledge of regional culture and place-related specificities is also definitely an asset, for employees as well as partners and customers. Being aware of the importance of place and people uniqueness, being aware of other ways of thinking and other people-territory relationships will definitely make a difference in the way one can inspire others, no matter what the product is.

Geography provides an essential basic knowledge of global mechanisms that matter that every person making decisions on a daily basis should know about, from how nationalism shapes consumer habits to why beach vacations became the biggest sector of the tourism industry since being tanned became a sign of wealth sixty years ago.

Like other sciences, geography provides analytical skills, precision, the ability to collect and process significant amounts of quantitative and qualitative data and to synthesize and communicate results, both verbally and visually. More than other sciences, geography also provides spatial data visualisation skills (mapping and sketching), emphasises the capacity to read and communicate multiple dimensions of a problem to a range of partners and develops design and creativity skills, as well as decision-making and a good understanding of group and individual psychologies.

On top of that, leaders can gain a unique ability from geography by developing the three following skills:

  • The sense of scale: Being able to assess distances (not only physical distances, but also symbolic ones between cultures, people, products, times), to estimate accurately market size and accessibility, the feasibility of a project, its scalability  and the capacity to discern what falls under global trends (long-term) versus what are specific localized (short-term) phenomena make a great difference in the success of an enterprise.
  • Spatial thinking: Not to be confused with “making all big decisions looking at a map instead of charts”, spatial thinking simply means not forgetting that data are always coming from somewhere, which basically means they have to be considered in a cultural, political and economical place-related context, relative to other surrounding contexts (what happened in the past, what happened elsewhere, what happened in other dimensions than the financial or industrial one).
  • The sense of place: You always sell more than a product. You sell a story, a dream, a hope, a discourse. What makes the difference between a fair success and an exceptional product people will wait for is the deep and unwavering belief that they need this product to be the person they want to be.  You sell meaning, you sell identity and image. Places (from a country to a house) are not just interchangeable empty containers for people. They are deeply associated with affective memories, life stories, key moments in people’s lives. Just like things.

If  ”power is information”, knowing what is where in the world, and why, how it used to be and how it is likely to be in the future is essential for anyone aspiring to blaze a path for others and inspire them to follow it.

Oh, also, learning geography will help in not looking like a fool by confusing Iraq with Afghanistan or ignoring what the capital city of Canada is.