Five Steps to Becoming a Trailblazer

Five Steps to Becoming a Trailblazer


A trailblazer is a pioneer or someone who is considered a first in their area of expertise.  As leaders, they point the way, take the risks, and change the environment.  They have a vision for a different future, a faith that turns their dreams into reality, and a determination that cuts through barriers and obstacles.   


The Wright Brothers overcame obstacles of aerodynamics so that man could have wings.  Grace Hopper handled hexadecimal hurdles to make the computing machine accessible and practical for business.  And the late Steve Jobs gave us innovations putting wings on computers taking the everyday consumer to new heights. 


So how does a person become a trailblazer?  In particular, how do you blaze a trail?  Well….look it up at


Here are the steps (seriously, these are listed) you’ll find.  I add my thoughts for applying this in your leadership walk.




1.       Assess the density and type of foliage the area has growing and equip yourself with the stuff from the “Things You’ll Need” accordingly.


Trailblazers are known for being innovators.  Those people who do things that have never been done, create things that never existed, or perform in ways unimaginable.  In their Harvard Business Review article, Clayton Christensen and others in The Innovator’s DNA discuss some of the key skills that innovators have as part of their makeup.  They question status quo and challenge assumptions.  They welcome problems and gain momentum by overcoming them.  These trailblazers are also very observant, understanding the culture that they operate in, looking for customer needs, and being mindful of small details. 


Trailblazers have the personal qualities of strength, courage, and resilience causing them to be relentless in their pursuits and embracing and learning from failures or setbacks.  They are prepared so that they can perform their personal best to deliver what’s required of them.  Lou Gerstner in Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance emphasizes the need for an executive to bring with him the entire arsenal of their leadership skills, maintain clear and consistent focus, and be superb at execution in order to lead change in their organizations.  Trailblazers bring everything they have to accomplish their goals.  


2.       Plan the width of the trail. If it’s a private trail, it only has to be about a foot (30 cm) to a foot and a half (46 cm) wide, just enough for a single file line of people to go through.  If it’s going to be a public trail, make it wide enough for four hikers abreast.


Many people erroneously believe that innovation and trailblazing have no place in the public sector.  This is because of how things like profit and shareholder value work to provide the motivation and imperative for change and innovation.  However, currency of the public sector is politics.  Trailblazers in the public sector need to understand the impact of this political economy and the importance of the stakeholders.  This means that matters that improve life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness motivates much of the innovation in the public sector. 


And what about bureaucracy? This requires trailblazers in the public sector to consider innovations, processes and workflow as they move down those paths least taken.  This causes them to look at bureaucracy as a path towards implementation.  Public sector trailblazers create new structures and rules to govern their pioneering concepts.  They seek ways to blaze through trails while keeping us safe, auditable, and secure. 


3.      Plan the direction of the trail. Check to see if any unmovable obstacles, such as fences, boulders, large trees, or streams will disrupt things.


I had a boss who when discussing organizational change would always say if you can’t change the people, change the people.  After a few beats, I figured out what he was saying.  You need to have the ability to find out which obstacles continue to hinder change and address it … whatever it is.  It could be people, laws, or technology challenges.  But whatever they are, they must be overcome if you are going to blaze that trail. 


4.      Cut down or flatten all trees and bushes to make the path. Leave some plants growing at the entrances if you want to make it a hidden trail.


Trailblazer Grace Hopper exemplified this as she created new languages and algorithms to use with the new digital computing machine.  With her team, she resolved problem after problem—and flattened bush after bush — until she got the results that were needed.  She was always willing to credit others for achievement and enjoyed working in the background.  She preferred the hidden trail of not always asking for permission to do something and advocated asking for forgiveness instead.   


5.      Clean up the dead bushes. Remove and rocks that could trip people.


As you blaze a trail, you can’t just walk away once you think your job is done.  You have to make sure that others can follow the path you blaze.  Nancy Barry is an innovator in banking who was quite active in the mission of eradicating poverty by empowering low income women globally.  She was selected as the Forbes Magazine 2003 Trailblazer in recognition of her accomplishments.  Barry was a pioneer in microfinancing – investing low dollar amount loans for women to help them climb above the poverty line.  Microfinancing specialized in microloans – small loans, $500 on average, to help entrepreneurs do things like buy fertilizer for a crop, payroll for an office, or raw materials for items to be resold.  Barry was an advocate of helping eradicate poverty by educating and exciting these budding trailblazers.  Her goal was not just lending money to poor struggling women, but to serve them by creating a self-sustaining economic engine that would deliver value. 




·         Watch out for poisonous plants and animals and thorny bushes.

·         Trails disrupt nature.

·         Nature preserves are government property.


There’s a saying that warns you never to pick up a snake because if you do, you can’t put it down.  As you go down the trail, be careful to maintain your values and integrity.  Picking up a snake to make your path safer always proves to be a bad idea. 


What you are doing is disruptive.  If you think that you aren’t going to “rock the boat”, forget it! However, watch out for what is sacred and should be spared.  These are things that are important to a culture and to an organization. 


Things You’ll Need


·         Hedge Clippers (for smaller bush)

·         Ax or Saw (for trees)

·         Shovel (to remove medium sized rocks and roots)


You’ll need the clippers and ax for many of the steps above, but don’t forget your shovel.  You’ll need this so that you can rely on more than your five senses to cut through the … what I meant was to shovel the ….well, maybe I should just leave it at that and end this instructive rant. 


Linda Cureton, CIO NASA


One thought on “Five Steps to Becoming a Trailblazer”

  1. My additions to this very informative list:

    · A Stiff upper lip to answer those who would say that you, as the trailblazer, are crazy

    · A strong back to give you, the Trailblazer, the fortitude to carry on despite the naysayers

    · Vision in the back of your head to watch those who are catching up thanks to your already-blazed trail!

    Thanks for the great post, Linda.

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