Can you imagine leading a team into uncharted areas that was fraught with danger, enemies, and overwhelming obstacles? Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led such an adventure. The Corps of Discovery is best known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose relives this captivating story. Their team consisted of a permanent party included 2 captains, 3 sergeants, 23 privates, and 5 civilians (a small group returned before the first winter). The team launched from St. Charles, Missouri (actually, you could say that Lewis started from Washington, DC, over the Alleghany’s via Pittsburg, down the Ohio, then up the Mississippi, with a small group, before departing from St. Charles) up the Missouri River over the Rocky Mountains onto the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and Clark traveled more than 8,000 miles in less than two and one-half years, losing only one member of their party, who died early on the trip from apparent acute appendicitis. They were undaunted by the adventure. In fact, they were drawn to it.
Here are a few learnings that I gleaned from their story, that can help anyone lead a team into uncharted territory.
- They shared leadership. The two men led as one. Meriwether Lewis was enlisted by President Thomas Jefferson. Lewis invited William Clark to lead alongside him. They both had the rank of captain. They had known each other earlier when Lewis served in the Army under Clark. They each brought varying gifts, talents, and experience to the leadership role. They trusted each other. They complimented each other. Where Lewis was shaky, Clark was strong, and vice versa.
- They planned and prepared. For months they planned and made preparation for this trip that would take them past where any Americans had been before. They were traveling uncharted waters and over virgin landscape. They made every preparation that could for their trek, not knowing what to expect.
- They enlisted the right men. They wanted men of character, competence, compatibility, and perseverance. Both Lewis and Clark agreed on the selection of the team.
- They executed discipline. Their discipline was quick and severe. They were almost unmerciful in their discipline of the hardened men at the beginning of the trip. They knew the importance of the men following their leadership and that the journey required men committed to the task.
- They were trustworthy. The men trusted Lewis and Clark as leaders. There was a relative absence of rumors among the men. One might expect a lot of speculation of Lewis and Clark’s intentions since they were traveling into unknown areas. But it did not occur. A tribute to the captains’ leadership and discipline and the mark of how totally the men trusted them.
- They led the team as a father led his family. They were in this adventure together and needed each other and were dependent on each other for survival and success. Under the leadership of Lewis and Clark the team had become a family. They knew each other’s mannerism, strengths, and weakness. They would triumph, or die, as one.
- They cast off what was not needed. Lewis had planned and built a boat for the expedition. As the journey went on, it became obvious that the boat was no longer useful and needed. Lewis left it behind. They were willing to let go of what was not working.
- They made changes as the situation warranted. Initially, it meant adding more men to the Corps. Then adjusting their supplies, accordingly.
- They took necessary risks. Obviously, the whole venture was a risk, but in route they took the risks necessary for the team to make the journey and complete their mission.
- The leaders got more out of the men than the men thought they could give. The team was pushed, but never beyond the breaking point.
- They knew they needed the help of others to complete their journey. Without the help of Indian guides, Indian tribes, and resources from the land, the expedition would not have made it. Without the ability to hunt and live off the land they would not have survived. Ironically, without the help and presence of the Indian woman, Sacagawea, they would not have been accepted by Indian tribes. Her presence indicated to warring Indians, the team was not seeking conflict.
- Their goal was simple and clear. Primarily, they were following the orders of President Jefferson, travel to the Pacific Ocean, hopefully finding a water passage across the continent. Secondarily, they were to explore the region, making notes of animal and plant species, and connecting with the various Indian tribes. They executed the orders completely. They stayed true to their mission.
- They were good men in a crisis. If there were a desperate situation, Lewis and Clark were the kind of men you would want for a leader. They knew what to do, how to act, and how to get their men to follow.
- They took care of their men. They saw to it that they had dry socks, enough food, sufficient clothing. Amazing, considering where they were, how they traveled, and the obstacles they faced.
- They didn’t make many mistakes. Miraculously, they made mostly right decisions, at the right times, with limited information.
- They followed their gut. For example, when they came to the headwaters of the Missouri with three possible options, the team thought they should travel up the Marias, Lewis was convinced that was not correct. He followed his gut. He was right. The men followed Lewis, in spite of their reluctance.
- They shared the work. Lewis and Clark cooked for their men, and poled the canoes. They hunted and fished. They never ordered the men to do what they wouldn’t do.
- They finished the task. Lewis and Clark completed their mission. It took them two years and four months to complete the 8,000-mile journey. They experienced trials, pains, obstacles, uncertainty, overwhelming odds, but they accomplish their goal.
Thomas Jefferson wrote of Meriwether Lewis: “Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness & perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge . . . for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him.”
What will people say of us.
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