Thought Leadership

The Ever-Changing Nature of Leadership

Core Leadership Skills Need to Include Bushwhacking

By Karen L. Cates and Naini Serohi
Academic Advising Team, Executive Development Program

bushwhack (verb): 1. To live or travel in wild or uncultivated country; 2. To travel by foot in uncleared terrain; 3. To clear a path or advance through thick woods especially by chopping down bushes and low branches. — Merriam-Webster.

Outdoor adventurers know the benefits of bushwhacking. When you clear your own trail, you might discover new pathways, experience new vistas or even get to your destination faster. Bushwhacking isn’t for the faint of heart, however. You may discover you don’t have the right gear, you have an aversion to uncertainty or worse: you get lost and find your newly blazed path isn’t getting you any closer to your journey’s end.

Despite the potential for hardship, bushwhacking has the potential to be an important part of your leadership tool kit. Not the “in the woods” kind, but the kind that requires you to think on your feet, to marshal your best critical thinking skills; the kind that requires you to expand your bandwidth to consider all sorts of obstacles and how to get around them; the kind that only works when you are well prepared for whatever comes your way. A few lessons from the outdoor adventurer apply here:

  1. Know your team’s skills and have the right gear. You need to be able to count on your team to step up when you need them, bringing their best knowledge and decision-making skills. Have the right people and inventory their talents. What is their appetite for bushwhacking? Be sure you have cultivated the resources to manage whatever your organization or your industry throw your way.
  2. Have a general plan. Know where you are going, but don’t micromanage how you and your team will get there. You don’t have to blaze every new foot of trail, but beware of old roads that get you to the same old places. Respect the rules (and the law), and meet deadlines. You don’t want others wondering if you really know what you are doing.
  3. Keep everyone together and check in regularly. Keep track of who is doing what. And remember, others are waiting for the results of your work. Manage up and manage down: where are you? What progress are you making? What (additional) resources will you need to reach your goal?
  4. Know when to stop and turn around. Jim Goodnight at SAS Institute used to tell his people it’s OK to dig holes — just know when to stop digging. Sometimes bushwhacking doesn’t get you where you wanted to go. Sometimes you need to stop, reflect, reorganize and redeploy.

Bushwhacking skills allow you and your team to shift gears in the middle of a project, recognize danger on the path you are currently taking and discover new ways to get the job done. It’s ok to start small, hone your team and refine your collective bushwhacking skills. You will be surprised by how far they can take you, especially when plans change. And don’t they always?

Karen Cates has been teaching at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University since 1994. For nine years, she taught Negotiations, Human Resource Management, and Organizational Behavior courses to MBA and Executive MBA students. As a lecturer in executive programs over the past 15 years, she has developed programming and consulted with client companies (domestic and global) around issues of organizational alignment, leadership development, communication, strategic planning and employee relations. She is currently an Academic Director in Kellogg Executive Education's Executive Development Program.

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Executive Development Program

The Kellogg Executive Development Program transforms organizational leaders. It equips top-performing, mid-level to senior managers to make decisions and take strategic action based upon both traditional and innovative business practices. Participants build skills and awareness as they realize their potential for assuming general management roles.

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May 1 - June 16, 2023

Start: May 1 at 7:30 AM

End: June 16 at 2:00 PM


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April 19: Live Virtual at 7:00 AM CT

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This Approval Program is limited to individuals with specific business experience. All applications will be subject to review and approval from the program’s Academic Director.

October 15 - November 3, 2023

Start: October 15 at 8:30 AM

End: November 3 at 1:00 PM

Format: In-Person at Allen Center on Evanston Campus

In-Person fee includes lodging and most meals


This Approval Program is limited to individuals with specific business experience. All applications will be subject to review and approval from the program’s Academic Director.

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