By James Gehrke

Life is a pilgrimage and we are all pilgrims! If you aspire to leadership, this analogy may be even more appropriate!

In Latin, pilgrimage means “wandering over a distance,” but today the word has a much deeper connotation. As Lewis Carroll reminds us in Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Regrettably, that describes the direction of too many of us today.

Unlike many leaders today, pilgrims had a singular vision of where they were going and why they were going there. They shared fundamental values and beliefs that compelled them to make incredibly long, challenging, solitary, yet extraordinarily impactful journeys to sacred locations. They were motivated by the recognition that through sacrifice and reflection they would gain enlightenment and create an enduring legacy for future generations!

In the summer of 2009, on my first day retracing the 500-mile medieval pilgrims’ route across northern Spain, I stood on a bridge that spanned a river and over 10 centuries of “pilgrimage” history. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims crossed this point as they followed “the Way of St. James” to the most western edge of what was then the known world. It was on my personal “pilgrimage” that I realized the connection between forgotten pilgrims of the past and personal, team, and organizational excellence today.

It is commonly said that the Way of St. James is a “thousand-year-long” journey. From the eighth century until today, there has been a constant flow of pilgrims from all over Europe, converging at mountain crossings in the mountainous corridor between France and Spain and continuing westward to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela and beyond to the Atlantic coast, and what was in the Middle Ages, literally the end of the world!

The great majority of these pilgrims have been common people, yet their accomplishments have been extraordinary. More important than arriving at their destination, their shared values and collective determination has left a lasting legacy that changed history. It has always been so with pilgrims, whether they were pilgrims on the road to Santiago or American pilgrims on their way to the new world, each individually and together collectively, they created an enduring legacy for others to follow.

We share this same potential. Whether we are leaders of nations, teams, or individual contributors, providence has embedded in each of us seeds of greatness! Regrettably, too few of us maximize that full potential. Like the pilgrims before us, to achieve greatness, we must embark on the equivalent of a “pilgrimage” of inner reflection and development. Doing so helps us answer the questions the pilgrims clearly understood:

What values motivate us to action?

What is our end destination (legacy)?

How can we stay focused on that end?

Will we be persistent and flexible in times of adversity?

How does service help both us and those we serve achieve our objectives?

How will we motivate others to join the journey?


James Gehrke, MS, is a senior learning strategist and modern personal leadership and effectiveness “pilgrim” with Magnify Leadership and Development. Join him as he leads a “Personal Leadership Pilgrimage” workshop at the 2013 ISPI conference in Reno. If you have any questions or would like more information, feel free to contact him at +1 (801) 266-0849 or by email at