| Dec 2, 2022

4 Leadership Lessons, Courtesy of Lewis and Clark

In the face of rapid and unforeseeable changes, business leaders can learn a lot about navigating today’s corporate wilderness from the legendary captain and lieutenant.
By Kyle Pare |

4 minutes

Not all of history’s lessons are cautionary. The triumphs and tribulations of the people who came before us can hold valuable lessons on success. One of those stories that we have almost forgotten is the Lewis and Clark expedition. With a vague and absurdly incomplete map of the area west of the Mississippi river, these two men led a Corps of Discovery of 45 intrepid people (including a slave, an Indian woman, and her newborn) on an 8,000-mile trek from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. They did it without steam power, electricity, or modern medicine. 

It didn’t happen by accident, and their leadership has lessons that modern business leaders can still apply today.

1. Prepare for the Unexpected

When Thomas Jefferson purchased the vast Louisiana Territory in 1804, nobody was entirely sure what he bought with $15 million (about $342 million today). The only descriptions of the area were second- or third-hand accounts from fur trappers or traders from France, Spain, or Britain. Meriweather Lewis, the commander of the expedition that Jefferson sent to figure out what he had purchased, knew vaguely about the Rocky Mountains, the weather, and the scores  of potentially hostile Indian tribes along the way. Beyond that, he could only guess. 

Lewis prepared extensively for the journey. He spent two years purchasing food stores, guns, and trade goods. He studied with some of the best scholars on the East Coast to learn all he could. The tools, equipment, and people he brought with him were an acknowledgment of his ignorance, so everything was general purpose. He prepared for the unexpected.

External factors can pop up instantly, unforeseen and unwelcome. We are not facing the same geographic uncertainties that Lewis and William Clark confronted, but the world is filled with uncertainties and dynamic environments. Lewis showed the value of taking opportunities to generalize one’s knowledge even a little, and when possible, to pursue a plan that is resilient to unexpected circumstances.  

2. Fill Gaps With a Good Team

Initially, Lewis was only authorized to take 12 Soldiers in his party. He and Clark quickly determined that wouldn’t be nearly enough. Not only did they need extra firepower to defend themselves from both man and beast, but they needed interpreters to communicate with the Indian tribes that Jefferson had hoped to befriend. They also needed extra hands to hunt and sail supply-laden boats, and required guides to help them navigate the wilderness. Because they knew and accepted their own limitations, Lewis and Clark filled the gaps to make it to the Pacific. Bringing on people like Sacagawea significantly improved their chances of success. 

A fundamental rule of leadership is knowing (and accepting) our own weaknesses and shortcomings. The best leaders, to paraphrase Franklin D. Roosevelt, aren’t the smartest people in the world, but they pick smart colleagues. Filling gaps in their own personal skillset worked for Lewis and Clark 220 years ago, and with the extensive specialized knowledge required in today’s hyper-specialized world, it’s even more necessary now. 

3. Stay on Mission

The Corps of Discovery’s primary mission, given by President Jefferson himself, was to determine if an all-water route between the east and west coasts of America existed. There were several secondary goals as well — lay the groundwork for good American-Indian relations, categorize new flora and fauna, and expand economic opportunities for the fledgling nation. Throughout the journey, Lewis and Clark had to make some difficult choices but they succeeded in reaching the West Coast because they stayed on task. 

It’s easy to think of examples of companies that didn’t maintain Lewis and Clark’s rigorous discipline and devotion to their founding principles. These companies often adopt scattershot strategies and have trouble sticking to their mission (or even worse, don’t have a clear mission to begin with). In times of difficulty, revisiting a company’s founding principles and sticking to the organization’s mission increases the odds it will be accomplished. 


4. Maintain Discipline

First and foremost, the Lewis and Clark expedition was a military one. Lewis was a captain in the US Army, Clark was a lieutenant, and many of the members were enlisted men. They were crossing a harsh and unforgiving landscape that no white men had ever traversed, and they met many dangers along the way. The leaders enforced strict military discipline; in several instances, men were subjected to dozens of lashings for getting excessively drunk or lapsing on watch. This may seem harsh, but the alternative could have meant mission failure or, worse, death. 

The two men were undoubtedly fair and even-handed in their discipline, however. There were several instances where Lewis and Clark led their group into unknown dangers, but the group obeyed cheerfully and without question. At one point, they even allowed Clark’s slave, York, and Sacagawea to vote on where they held winter camp on the Pacific coast — probably the first example of members of these two groups voting. This indicates that both leaders had their group’s best interests at heart and earned their trust over the 28-month journey. As a result, the trip was a resounding success, and despite disease, wild animals, and the elements, only one person died

Companies have rules and standards for a reason. Fair, impartial, and disciplined adherence to those rules increases the odds of success and builds trust among employees. Strive to be equitable in doling out praise and punishment, but above all, maintain discipline. It not only improves the chances of success but also reduces the likelihood of legal, ethical, or moral problems arising. 

Plans May Change but the Fundamentals Don’t

If 45 people could cross a vast wilderness with little more than the sun and stars to guide them, today’s business leaders can surely navigate uncertain climates. The Corps of Discovery lived up to their name in a heroic fashion, but they did it by sticking to time-tested strategies that still work today. Yesterday’s leaders aren’t so different from us after all.

Kyle Pare
Kyle Pare

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Kyle Pare has been a freelance writer for two years and a communications officer in the military for nine. view profile


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