I just finished reading a book I had been meaning to read for a long time. The book is “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen E. Ambrose. It details the adventures of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and it is really a lesson in leadership.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery on one of the most important expeditions in history. President Thomas Jefferson commissioned this expedition that explored the western part of the United States shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Captain Lewis and his faithful lieutenant led a unit of approximately 45 diverse individuals through mostly unknown and rugged terrain attempting to find a water route across the continent. It was a marathon expedition begun on August 31, 1803, and not concluding until September 22, 1806. The journey was risky, dangerous, unprecedented, and arduous. To put it another way, the expedition was not for the faint of heart.
We could learn a great deal from the leadership attributes of Lewis and Clark. The time-honored leadership principles they exhibited can provide wise counsel to leaders today who navigate rough and uncharted waters.
NOTE: As I speak to the leadership traits of Lewis and Clark, I will call members of their expedition “men” for the sake of simplicity. I do not mean to diminish the fact that a female Native American was a member of the Corps of Discovery. Her name was Sacagawea. She played a critical role in the success of the expedition as an interpreter, guide, a reliable teammate, and an overall hard worker.
Leadership Attributes Worth Emulating
Lewis and Clark first and foremost led by example. They shared the hard tasks with their people. They were willing to roll up their sleeves and pitch in with any of the difficult tasks. They cooked for their men, took their turn paddling canoes, and hunted to bring in food for the good of all. Lewis and Clark were rugged and tough. Their resiliency was an inspiration to their men.
These two leaders provided a clear vision and articulated a clear purpose to the men they led. The members of the expedition understood why they had to endure the hardships they were called upon to bear. Lewis and Clark conveyed a sense that members of the expedition had a purpose much greater than themselves. The members of the expedition were inspired by the historic role they were playing.
Lewis and Clark displayed integrity. They were upfront with the members of the expedition on what was expected and the hardships they would expect to encounter. The two leaders were frank and candid with their followers, and they did not sugarcoat anything.
The expedition leaders took the time to get to know their men, prior to the expedition, and then along the way. They gained intimate knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of all members of the expedition. The two leaders were wise enough to leverage the strengths of the team members and minimize individual weaknesses.
Lewis and Clark set standards and then had the courage to fairly and justly enforce those standards. Sometimes the punishment they dealt out was harsh, but all members of the expedition had to agree it was fair. Respect grew for Lewis and Clark as the expedition proceeded.
The two leaders took pains to take care of the troops. There were times when the expedition lacked desired food and medical care and other resources. However, Lewis and Clark saw after the men’s needs to the best of their ability with the resources they had available.
They were conscious of the dangers of boredom during winter encampments and took care to ensure the men were engaged during those periods of downtime to keep their bodies and their minds active. They were equitable with the tasks they made the men perform.
They would fret over the hygiene and health of their men. Remarkably, only one member of the expedition died along the way, and historians believe it was due to a ruptured appendix. Lewis and Clark ultimately cared more for those they led than they cared for themselves. That is exactly what leaders are supposed to do.
Lewis and Clark assumed prudent risk. The expedition leaders would mitigate risk to the best of their ability while still oriented on the mission at hand. Lewis made a decision to trade much-needed guns and ammunition for horses at one point as the expedition was making its way back. The horses were critical to completing the mission and Lewis mitigated the risk by trading older guns and keeping more serviceable ones.
Lewis had the courage to make decisions like this time after time. Both Lewis and Clark understood the mission and would only take a risk when necessary to achieve the purpose of the expedition.
Lewis and Clark displayed the wisdom to reevaluate their decisions when new information became available. For example, on their way back east, they made the decision to move into the Rocky Mountains and they encountered trails that were still covered with huge amounts of snow. They reevaluated the decision and backtracked out of the mountains. It was a hard decision to cover the same ground twice, but based on what they found they made that hard decision. They ventured into the Rockies a few weeks later after the snow melted. If Lewis and Clark did not reevaluate their decision the expedition would have been doomed. They were both humble enough to take a second look at their decisions when necessary.
Lewis and Clark were also humble enough to ask what other members of the expedition thought. When the situation was appropriate Lewis and Clark would solicit the opinions of members of the expedition before making a decision. During the winter of 1805-06, the two leaders had the men weigh in on where to set up their winter camp near the mouth of the Columbia River. This showed the people they led that they trusted them and valued their advice.
The expeditions leaders were humble enough to know they needed the skill sets of every team member in order to achieve success. They also reached out to Native Americans at important points during the journey to use them as guides, interpreters and to replenish food and other supplies. Lewis and Clark were not so arrogant to think they could complete such an expedition without the help of others.
Modern-day leaders can do well to emulate the leadership attributes of these two early 19th century explorers. Lewis and Clark led a successful expedition under the most demanding conditions because they displayed strong leadership attributes. Lewis and Clark were not saints and they were not perfect leaders. Lewis sometimes made rash decisions and he had a hard time controlling his emotions. Their men did not expect perfect leaders, but they did expect them to provide a clear vision and purpose to their followers, display honesty and integrity in their dealings with their men, to lead by example, and demonstrate care for those they led. Because Lewis and Clark demonstrated these attributes, they cultivated trust within the unit, and trust is the oil that allows the engine of an organization to run efficiently and effectively.
As leaders, we should take the time to look back at history in order to assist us in looking forward. Someone once said if we want to come up with a new idea, read history. I recommend that today’s leaders take the time to read history and learn from the challenges and accomplishments of past leaders.
As leaders, we may not be called upon to lead an expedition the magnitude of the Corps of Discovery and we may not have to place ourselves and our team in harm’s way as Lewis and Clark did. Yet, we still must get the most out of our team to win in an extremely competitive world. The leadership attributes Lewis and Clark displayed are time-honored and modern-day leaders will do well by emulating these traits.