Leading Teams to Greatness – 200 Year Old Lessons in Leading a Team
Over two centuries ago, two men led an expedition of 30 men, a woman, a newborn baby, and a dog across the North American Continent and into greatness .
What Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the Corps of Discovery accomplished has been compared to the Apollo mission of putting a man on the moon in the late 1960’s. When Lewis and Clark “stepped off the map”, they were literally stepping into the unknown. They expected to see wooly mammoths still roaming the land. They thought they might find red-headed Indians, descendants of Leif Ericson’s expedition. They thought the Rockies were a single mountain range similar to the Alleghenies and the Appalachians.
What makes this expedition even more noteworthy is that the Lewis & Clark Expedition was not the first expedition that set out to “discover” the Northwest Passage, history records at least two other expeditions prior to 1803. The first was to be led by William Clark’s older brother George Rogers Clark. However, it fell apart before it even departed with politics, pride, and arguments dooming it from the outset. Frenchman Andre Michaux was to lead the second, his expedition got as far as the wild Indiana Territory before it was turned back by the Native Americans.
A few years ago, I wrote an ebook titled, “Everything I Learned about Leadership…I Learned from Lewis and Clark”. In it, I explored the ten traits of leader using the Captains as positive (and negative) examples. Recently, I was asked which of the traits were the most important to building and leading a team (thanks Will!). I struggled to find an answer. Just how were they able to take a rag tag band of volunteers and lead them on an 8,000 mile journey through the wilderness and only lose one man in the process? And, what can we as leaders in the 21st century learn from their example?
As I mulled these questions over and thought about the ten traits.
- is Transparent
- is Honest and Truthful
- is Accountable
- is Patient
- Seeks Input
- is Committed
- has Integrity and Character
- Admits Mistakes
- is Flexible
- Takes Risks
Four traits stood out to me as integral to building a team and leading a team to greatness : Transparency, Accountability, Seeks Input and Commitment.
When president Thomas Jefferson asked Lewis to lead the expedition, it is interesting to note the first action Lewis took. He sat down and wrote a letter to his old Army buddy, William Clark. The letter to Clark offered him a full Captaincy, a co-Captain with Lewis, something unprecedented in Military History. Why would Lewis do this? Why would he ask Jefferson’s approval? For that matter, why would Jefferson approve?
I believe Jefferson and Lewis had created an environment of transparency and candor between the two of them. Many leadership books today that discuss transparency focus on the outward flow of information to the marketplace. Organizations are encouraged to be open and honest with their investors, the marketplace, and other external stakeholders. Some books will also encourage leaders to be open and honest with their employees, volunteers and internal stakeholders. Still fewer books will talk about encouraging those employees and internal stakeholders to be open and honest with management. However, I contend in order to create an environment of transparency and a culture of candor, leaders must first be transparent with themselves. They must look at themselves without any of the guises of self-deception. They must be open and honest with themselves about their strengths and weaknesses. I believe that Lewis was very much aware of his strengths and, more importantly, his weaknesses. He knew the mission would not be successful without the complementary skills that William Clark would bring to the table. I have no doubt that Jefferson had created an environment in which they could openly and honestly discuss his strengths, but also his weaknesses. Had Jefferson berated Lewis for his weaknesses or pointed them out in front of his peers, or had not discussed them in a caring and constructive manner, or had not been open and honest with Lewis about his own strengths and weaknesses, Lewis would have been very reluctant to admit to those weaknesses by suggesting that Clark be a co-Captain with him.
This is just as important today in the workplace as it was 200 years ago in the wilderness. If you are in a leadership position today, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is even more important than knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your team. If you are not in leadership, one of the biggest steps you can take to build your leadership qualities is to carefully assess your strengths and weaknesses. Lay out a plan to address your weaknesses. I would caution you however, not to focus exclusively on your weaknesses, look for ways to maximize your strengths and make your weaknesses irrelevant. If you are in a position of building a team, knowing your strengths and weaknesses will help you identify team members that compliment your skills rather than team members that are our clones or clones of each other.
This brings us to the next trait or skill of a leader required for building and leading teams to greatness , and, frankly, one of the most difficult
Not just accountability, but accountability with consequences. As leaders, we must learn the art of holding our peers and our teams and ourselves accountable for their commitments and what we require of them. It begins with clear and consistent instructions, specific deliverables, and specific dates; confirming that each of those are understood and acknowledged. However, it goes beyond that, so that if the deliverables do not meet expectations or commitments are not met there are immediate and consistent consequences.
Let’s look at how our Captains Clark and Lewis handled accountability. While I don’t recommend this approach today, I do believe there are some lessons to be gained. During the winter of 1803/1804, the Corps was camped across the river from St. Louis near what is today Alton, Illinois. They called it Camp Du Bois or Camp Wood. Now picture, a long cold winter, with an encampment of 50 – 60 young, virile, adventurous men, many of whom had never been in military service. Throw in a regiment of drills, discipline, and hard physical labor. Add a dash or two of whiskey. What do you get? Discipline problems! Fights!
Captain Clark laid down some very specific rules of the camp, along with the consequences of breaking the rules. These consequences ranged from extra labor, latrine duty, loss of hunting privileges, and loss of whiskey privileges, to running the gauntlet and finally court martial. These consequences were handed down evenly and fairly and without hesitation. Their journals relate two instances that first winter and one the next spring that required the guilty to run the gauntlet of switches. Later there was one case that required court martial as the one and only man to desert was captured.
Obviously these consequences are not techniques we use today (I hope). I think it is interesting to point out, however, in the three and half year expedition, after that first spring, there were no other incidents that required the gauntlet or court martial. The men of the expedition knew the expectations, they knew there would be accountability, and they knew there would be consequences.
Think how the lack of accountability with consequences impacts team morale in your organization today…how much water cooler gossip is spent talking about Suzie who may come in late to every meeting, or Joe who consistently fails to meet his complete his assignments, yet always seems to “get away with it”. Admittedly, holding your peers accountable can be more difficult. Remember, the proverbially “team project” back in your school days. There always seemed to be that one guy that didn’t hold up his or her portion of the work. However, if you define clear objectives, clear expectations, and clear and fair consequences this trait can be an excellent tool in your tool belt.
During the summer of 1805, the Corps reached a pivotal point in the journey. After leaving one of the most scenic areas of the Missouri River, the White Cliffs, they came to a fork in the road. Well, actually it was a fork in the river. Throughout the previous winter, they had spent countless hours talking with the Mandan Indians about their journey ahead. The Mandans had told them about the White Cliffs, the Mandans had told them about the dry and arid plains, the Mandans had told them about the great waterfall on the Missouri. What the Mandans had NOT told them about was a fork in the river. The channels were of similar size and flow; one was muddy and one was a little clearer; one headed west, the other headed south. It was mid June, and the Rockies were still distant mirages on the horizon, but already snow covered. Selecting the wrong channel would lead to serious delays, if not complete failure of the mission.
The Captains were convinced that the southern channel was the proper channel, while every one of the men thought the western channel was the true Missouri. Rather than making a gut-instinct decision, the captains halted, at what today is called Decision Point.
They spent several days exploring both channels, discussing with the men, and exploring again. They reviewed every piece of evidence brought forth by the men. In the end, they were still convinced that the southern channel was the right choice. They informed the others, and without dissent, they proceeded on. Several days later they “d
iscovered” the Great Falls of the Missouri, confirming that they were indeed on the right course.
Whether the captains knew it or not, what they instilled in their team by taking the time to ask the right questions, not assuming they already had the right answer, and listening to the opinions of those around them, was the confidence, the freedom, and the empowerment to speak the truth to authority.
How many of us today, know managers that make decisions without gathering all the facts available to them or asking for input from those involved? It can be devastating to morale and team energy, in the best case. In the worst case it can have catastrophic consequences. In my opinion, informed decision making involves not only asking the right questions and gathering all the pertinent facts, it also means knowing when to stop analyzing (no analysis paralysis) and make a decision and it is also important to explain the decision. Why can be just as important as what. The Corps may not have agreed with the Captains, but they at least understood why rather than “because I said so”.
Later in the expedition, when the Corps reached to Pacific Ocean, they were faced with the decision of where to make camp for what would be another long winter.They scouted the shore both north of the Columbia River and south along the Pacific Coast. Each area had advantages and disadvantages; one seemed to be more protected from the elements; one seemed to have better hunting; one was closer to a tribe of friendly Native Americans; one was rockier and more difficult to reach the sea. Again, as at Decision Point, the Captains spent several days scouting, examining the information, and asking the thoughts of the men. Rather than making the decision, they did something that was highly unusual, especially for a military expedition. They put it to vote. It is interesting to note that Sacagawea, a woman, voted as did York, Clark’s African American Slave. They tallied the votes in their journals and the majority ruled.
The Captains do not tell us why they treated this decision differently than the one at Decision Point. My opinion is that as leaders they knew that different decisions need different approaches. It is not always possible to manage or lead by consensus. There are times, like at Decision Point, as leaders we are called upon to make the tough decisions. That does not mean we make them in a vacuum, without asking the right questions, without evaluating all of the facts available, and without considering the consequences. We do all of those things, and, the most important, we explain our decision to our teams, so, while they may not agree with the decision, they at least understand and appreciate the decision. This is one of the key traits for leading teams to greatness !
The two captains and the Corps proceeded on past Decision Point, past the Great Falls of the Missouri, past the Gates of the Mountains, past Three Forks, Beaverhead Rock and Clark’s Lookout, finally, arriving at the source of the mighty Missouri River. Yes, that little trickle of water springing from those rocks is the Missouri River. About a ¼ of a mile up from there, and I do mean UP, from there they came to the Continental Divide. After over two years of planning, sailing, poling, pulling, walking, crawling; after narrowly avoiding being turned back by the Teton Sioux; after several escapes from death by falling, drowning, or losing their way; after surviving temperatures of 58 below zero and 110 degrees above, they were about to fulfill their primary objective and reach the Columbia River watershed. They would build canoes and float down to the Pacific Ocean. They would spend an easy winter, and return by the route they had just followed. Throughout these two years, the Captains had exhibited commitment to the mission and the goal, always, as they would say, proceeding on.
Think of the excitement in Lewis’ mind as he approached the divide. Think of the pounding of his heart…think of the devastation he felt when he had, as my wife and I call it, his “Oh crap!” moment and looked out across, not a single range of mountains, but mountain range after mountain range. The fate of the mission hung in the balance, the fate of their lives hung in the balance. Winter was already beginning to set in. They had to find the Shoshone Indians and obtain horses. They could have turned back. They had already accomplished so much. In fact, they had the answer. There was no water route to the Pacific. However, the Captains knew Jefferson would not be satisfied. The CAPTAINS would not be satisfied. The commitment they had exhibited on countless occasions to proceed on had instilled in each and every one of the men (and woman) the same level of commitment. The CORPS would not be satisfied. So, without a dissenting voice, they again proceeded on.
Now, I grant you, rarely, in business today, are we faced with life or death tests of our commitment. We face tests and challenges every day. Our response to them as leaders will have a dramatic impact on our co-workers and our teams. If we explode in anger or frustration, if we give up completely, whenever we are faced with challenges, our teammates will lose confidence in us as leaders and they too will give up when faced with challenges. But if we proceed on in the face of challenges it will be a significant step for leading teams to greatness .
Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery did return home. Their arrival in St. Louis was celebrated all across the young nation. The knowledge of the North American Continent, the native peoples, the plants and animals was expanded dramatically almost overnight. Not only were these sciences advanced, but, as I hope you have seen, so to was our knowledge of how to grow leaders, how to create effective teams, and how to lead teams to accomplish greatness .