On a beautiful summer day, I happened upon a book sale in someone’s garage and stopped spontaneously to see what might delight me. Right away, my eyes fell upon a title that caught my attention. The book was entitled, “Into the Unknown: Leadership Lessons from Lewis and Clark’s Daring Westward Expedition”, by Jack Uldrich. I have always had a fascination with history, and their daring voyage seemed to have all of the makings of a great adventure story.
The book outlines 10 principles that the explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, shared as they led a group of 31 men to explore and map a part of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase in 1804-06. Their challenge was to find a practical route across the western half of the continent, which at that time was a wild, untamed and largely unknown region to white settlers.
When Merriwether Lewis accepted Thomas Jefferson’s commission to initiate an expedition through lands of the Northwest to the Pacific Ocean, he undoubtedly knew he was facing the challenge of a life-time. It was a journey into the unknown – difficult to plan or even imagine. Their trip into the wilderness was akin to embarking on a trip to the moon in their day. Along the way, there were many dangers and life-threatening situations that Lewis, Clark and their crew faced, but remarkably, over a period of 28 months and 8,000 miles, they only lost one man to appendicitis. Even Lewis’s famous dog, Seaman, would return unharmed.
To accomplish this difficult journey, Lewis and Clark led their team (they called the Corps of Discovery) in unconventional ways. They made a decision to lead collaboratively, by sharing power and responsibility throughout the journey. The two leaders had tremendous respect and admiration for one another and commanded the men in what were unusual ways for the time. Uldrich discusses their unique leadership qualities including their ability to think strategically, surround themselves with good people, interact with different cultures, and motivate their team.
The bulk of Uldrich’s book focuses on the specific leadership principles of the two commanders that greatly increased their chances for success on their journey. What they were able to model as leaders remains pertinent today to anyone in a leadership position – including civic leadership positions. Here are the ten principles Uldrich outlines, including a short description of each:
- Have a Passionate Purpose – Having a higher calling or purpose is extremely important when trying to motivate people to action. Purpose answers the question of “why” that is so often missing from our work and public life. A higher purpose can always be called upon when inevitable tensions arise, helping to keep a diverse team focused and motivated. Lewis and Clark were willing and able to blend their own self-interests in leading the Corps with the greater good of mankind and country, and inspired the Corps of Discovery with their clear values.
- Work to Develop Productive Partnering –Sharing the role of leader, while difficult to implement, produces greater and more productive outcomes than the sum of its parts. This requires the leaders to take full advantage of their complimentary skills, diverse life experiences, trust, communication, and ability to present a united front. By tapping the skills of two leaders instead of one, they were able to handle diverse challenges and address dangerous situations to their greatest advantage.
- Develop “Future Think “– Strategic thinking is more than just planning ahead. It is about considering what might be coming around the next bend and being as prepared as one can be for what may happen next.
- Honor Differences – Diversity is not only the right thing to aspire to, but also a strategic necessity. Lewis and Clark created a team with a diverse set of skills, varied backgrounds and different worldly experiences of the men and woman on their team. Diversity means that there will be more and better ideas for the team to tap when unforeseen problems come your way.
- Employ Equitable Justice – This requires leaders to be unafraid to hold individuals accountable to promises made for the welfare of the whole team, while also showing compassion, patience, support and fairness to those who are trying to fulfill their role in the greater adventure.
- Model Absolute Responsibility – Lead from the “front” by being unafraid to model the way and to be the change you want to see. Being a role model has tremendous power and engenders a sense of trust and commitment from a team. Modeling, unlike telling or educating, is known to have the greatest impact on those who follow.
- Have Meaningful Mentoring – Seek and accept the experience of wisdom from leaders and mentors that have gone before you.
- Show Realistic Optimism — Believe in your people, refuse to allow pessimism to take over, focus on the positive, never complain or feel victimized by obstacles. People will be watching you to see how you respond to adversity. Always keep a positive-forward focus.
- Take Rational Risks – Application of reasoned and applied analysis cannot prevent failure, however, it can greatly increase the chances for success. The potential for failure should not be an excuse for inaction. Keep moving forward anyway, but with careful thinking and consideration for the risks involved.
- Cultivate a Corps of Discovery – The key to good leadership is to be impeccable with your word and consistent with your vision and mission. The clarity of your purpose and thinking will help any team to reach its goal. Good leaders help others to discover their own potential and limitations as they get to the goal with you.
At the end of the Corps of Discovery Expedition, Lewis and Clark were revered by their men and honored for their bravery, fairness, decency and leadership. They had taken an unproven team and accomplished the impossible. Through it all, they stuck to their core principles and these allowed them to make a significant mark on history and on the lives of their crew. I encourage you to read this interesting and insightful book for more information about these remarkable men. May they inspire you in your civic journey and as a human being.
For more information, read, “Into the Unknown: Leadership Lessons from Lewis and Clark’s Daring Westward Expedition”, AMACOM, American Management Association, 2004.