Everything I Learned About Leadership…I Learned from Lewis and Clark

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I have a confession.

I am a groupie. I am sure many of you remember the 70’s and the “Dead Heads”, that group of hippies that followed the Grateful Dead all over the country. No, I haven’t been following my favorite rock band but I really AM a dead head because I’ve been following two dead guys all over the country for years!

Over those miles traveled, I have learned about history, our country, and, yes, I have learned about leadership. How these two men were able to lead their men (along with a woman, Sacagawea) across the un-explored continent and bring them home safely  can give us insights today into how to grow leaders, how to create effective teams, and how to create an environment of truth, transparency and candor. In my eBook, which you can download for free at the link at the end of this post, I explore ten traits of a leader using one of the greatest leadership books ever written, Lewis and Clark’s own journals.

A leader:

is Transparent

Many books today that discuss transparency focus on the outward flow of information to the marketplace. Some books will also encourage leaders to be open and honest with their employees. Still fewer books will talk about encouraging those employees to be open and honest with management. I believe leaders must first be transparent with themselves. They must look at themselves without any of the guises of self-deception. I believe the transparency that had been established between Thomas Jefferson and Meriwether Lewis laid a solid foundation for the planning of the Expedition. It was this foundation that led to William Clark being enlisted as co-captain with Lewis.

is Honest and Truthful

During the time that the captains were recruiting the members of the expedition they could of painted a rosy picture of a trip of adventure and romance across the country. Instead they were honest about the risks, the hardships, and the dangers of the journey. Today, whether we are recruiting new employees, or launching a new project, or discussing issues, we must be honest and truthful with our teams, our customers, and all of our stakeholders.

is Accountable

Accountability is one of the most difficult traits of a leader. For accountability to work, however, it must be combined with consequences. It is one thing to tell Joe he is accountable for a deliverable. It is quite another thing to hold him accountable by having consequences when he doesn’t deliver. Throughout their journals, especially in the early days of the expedition, there are many examples of the captains holding the men (and themselves) accountable. While I don’t suggest we use running the gauntlet, court martial, or even loss of whiskey privileges (seriously, I would never go to the extreme of denying someone their grog!) today, I do think we can learn lessons about laying down expectations and holding our teams accountable with fair and consistent consequences.

is Patient

With accountability and consequences, comes the fourth trait. A leader is also patient. The youngest member of the Corp was Private George Shannon. Shannon had a propensity for getting lost, not a good thing on a trek through the wilderness. Once while he was lost, he was able to feed himself by shooting a stick out of his rifle and killing a rabbit (resourceful might have to be added to this list). However, the captains were patient with Shannon and trained him. After the expedition, Shannon became a lawyer in Lexington Kentucky. I think, more than any other trait, we are called upon to be patient when others might “get lost” along the way. We train, we teach, we mentor, we do not adjust our expectations, or the consequences of accountability.

Seeks Input

Decision Point is one of my favorite spots along the 8,000 mile Lewis and Clark Trail. It is there, at the confluence of two rivers, the captains halted the expedition to explore both channels to ensure they selected the right channel before proceeding on. They examined all the evidence and made their decision. How many of us have experienced managers that make decisions without gathering all the facts or seeking input from those around them? It can be devastating to morale and team energy, in the best case. Great leaders use the knowledge and expertise of those around them to make their decisions. They also take the time to explain their decisions. Why can be just as important as what.

is Committed

To be successful leaders must be committed to the mission. Our response to challenges will serve as positive and negative examples to those around us. If we explode in anger or frustration, or if we give up completely our teams will lose confidence in us and they too will give up. The journey of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery has countless examples of being committed to the mission. In fact, they used the phrase “we proceeded on” so many times in their journals I am unable to count them.

has Integrity and Character

Admits Mistakes

One story in the journals provides us with two lessons in leadership. Our captains were not perfect. While faced with the long trip back to St. Louis, the Corps needed canoes. Unable to barter for one, Lewis ordered some of the men to steal one. In my opinion and in reading between the lines of the journals, Lewis had to fall several notches in the eyes of his men. Not only did he order them to steal one, we have no record of Lewis ever admitting his lapse in judgement. It is interesting to note, he doesn’t even retell the story in his journal. Leaders must manage themselves with high integrity and solid character. A great leader will do this in their personal as well as professional lives (those photos on Facebook, may NOT be a good idea!). When we do stumble, or make a mistake, we have to own up to the mistake, take responsibility for the mistake and learn from the mistake.

is Flexible

Throughout the three and half year odyssey, the Corps only retreated one time. When faced with snow “deeper than the trees were tall” while crossing the mountains, despite being anxious to return home, the captains called a retreat. The Corps returned to the base of the pass and waited with the Nez Perce tribe for the snow to melt. They waited almost two months. This showed flexibility (and perhaps wisdom!). Strong leaders must know when to “proceed on” and when to retreat, regroup, re-evaluate and adjust the strategy.

Takes Risks

Leaders must not only be willing to take risks, but we have to create an environment in which our co-workers are willing to take risks. If our teams are afraid of harsh consequences or an explosive boss, we may be leaving significant discoveries on the table. The entire Lewis and Clark adventure was a lesson in risk taking. However, there are several examples, where because the captains knew and understood the mission, they made decisions to accept even more risk. One such time was on the return journey when they divided the Corps into four smaller parties to help accomplish the mission.

Upon their return, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were celebrated all across our young nation. The knowledge of our country, the native peoples, the plants and animals was expanded dramatically almost over night. Not only were these sciences advanced, but, as I hope you have seen, so to was our knowledge of the traits of leadership.

Download Everything I Learned About Leadership

If you would like to read the entire eBook, you can download by clicking on the cover.

If anything you read here or in other posts strikes a chord, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment, hit me up on Twitter (@jtongici), find me on LinkedIn, or Google +.

Comments

  1. Joe Hand says

    Excellent blog, and I love your book – “Everything I Learned About Leadership…I Learned from Lewis and Clark” — Good work !

  2. John Frank says

    Jeff, thanks for sharing all of your knowledge of Lewis & Clark along with your vast experience in management and leadership. This is a good story and very well written.

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