When Heroes Fail

When Heroes Fail - People Development Network
When Heroes Fail - People Development Network

Let’s face it. It really sucks when our heroes fail or let us down in some way. Now, I’m not talking about the celebrity or politician du jour, unless of course you really looked up to them in some way. Nor, am I talking about the headline-grabbing antics of some pro athletes, unless you are twelve. In those cases, the stereotypical lesson may be all you need…everyone is human…everyone makes mistakes. (Nor, am I talking about a parent that lets us down, after all, I am a business leader, not a therapist.)

But when our heroes fail to live up to the expectations we place on them we have to dig deeper. We owe it to them and we owe it to ourselves to go beyond the “everyone makes mistakes” to find the lessons to be learned…even if they never learned the lessons themselves.

Anyone who knows me or has read much of my blog, knows I am a huge Lewis and Clark geek. Yes, Lewis and Clark, those American explorers who set out over two hundred years ago to discover the northwest passage and instead discovered a continent of incredible beauty, natural resources and dozens of tribes of indigenous peoples. I consider them heroes, at least my heroes anyway. Together, with their Corps, Sacagawea and her husband Toussaint Charbonneau, their baby Jean Baptiste, and Lewis’ dog Seaman, Captains Meriwether Lewis, and William Clark completed an 8,000 odyssey over about a three year period.

I won’t spend time here detailing their many accomplishments that raise them to hero status, for that you will need to read my eBook “Everything I Learned about Leadership…I Learned from Lewis and Clark”, or hire me to speak at your next corporate event! Suffice it to say, they overcame great odds to make the trek and return safely. But, I do know, they were not perfect, they made mistakes. I’d like to explore two of those mistakes, one that left Lewis with a bit of chink in his armor and one that nearly knocked his armor clear off.

The Iron Boat

Frances Hunter, on her blog, “American Heroes” (See! She considers him a hero as well!) writes a wonderful post describing Meriwether Lewis’s Iron Boat. I will recap it briefly, but I encourage to read Frances’ full story.

As Lewis was planning for the cross-continental journey, he knew as the rivers of west rose up into the mountains they would no longer be able to navigate their heavy boats and pirogues. To enable them to proceed on when that time came, he designed an iron-framed boat. They would cover the frame with hides and “glue” them together with pine tar.

After carting the frame for a couple of thousand miles, the moment finally arrived. It was time to unpack the frame and make the boat. One problem though. No pine trees. No pine trees mean no pine tar. After trying several concoctions the Corps had to abandon the Iron Boat, carve some dugout canoes and proceed on upstream.

Now think about this for a minute. Put yourself in Lewis’ shoes. He had been the personal secretary of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, the man that fancied himself quite an inventor. You know, that had to rub off on Lewis. Lewis was embarking on the mission of a lifetime. He was going to go down in history with all of the great explorers…and with the great inventors. He painstakingly designed the boat. He knew it would work!

Months later when he met up with Clark, he could probably scarcely contain his excitement as he told him about the boat and his “Grand Experiment”. My guess is during their time in the Clarksville area, he unpacked the boat to show it to Clark and the other men.

When they wintered over with the Mandan Indians and saw their bull boats made of wood and hides, he had to think to himself, his boat was far better. It could hold more men and more gear and would be easier to navigate. We don’t know if he shared this thought with those around him, but I have to think he did. Late the following summer, it was time. Time to go down in history with the great inventors of his era.

And then…and then, it didn’t work.

He was devastated, mortified to use his words. Lewis had to be incredibly embarrassed. He had been talking up this boat for two years. His planning for the expedition had been meticulous. He had contingencies upon contingencies for heading out into the unknown. They had carried thousands of pounds of supplies for two thousand miles, but…no pine tar.

When understood in the context of the Expedition, the Iron Boat is like a multifaceted diamond of leadership lessons. For now, I’d like to focus on one. Lewis, although crushed by the failure, knew when it was time to stop, admit defeat and move on. They had tried for two weeks. Any further delay would escalate the risk they faced in crossing the mountains ahead. In the face of insurmountable facts, he buried his dream with a cache of supplies and left it behind.

We don’t know if he sought the counsel of Clark or any of the other men if he did they certainly didn’t record the conversation in their journals. In fact, the impression I get from the journals is that the men, at least, gave it everything they had to make it work. Some even calling it “our iron boat” as opposed to Lewis’ “my iron boat”. He had their buy-in. They felt ownership. I’m guessing they also felt disappointment at the failure. I think the lesson here is they failed as a team. They tried, they gave it their best shot. It didn’t work and together they moved on.

Despite Lewis’ sometimes self-centeredness, they had made this their project, but, he didn’t engage with them at any point on the journey to that date, to help solve the problem. He had to notice the growing sparseness of pine trees. He had to be concerned. Did he confide in Clark? Had he asked the Mandans the winter before how they sealed their bull boats? Was his mistake over-confidence? I believe so.

The Clatsop Canoe

Let’s jump to the other side of the mountains and advance the calendar about nine months. The Expedition had crossed the mountains and learned the cold hard truth: there was no Northwest Passage. After escaping death in the mountains, being nursed back to health by the Nez Perce, and nearly drowning shooting the rapids of the Columbia River, they had reached the Pacific Coast and spent a miserable winter in the Pacific Northwest.

It had rained almost every day since their arrival. Their clothes were literally rotting off of them. Their beds were infested with fleas. They were ready to go home. Their trade goods were nearly exhausted. They needed two more canoes. Using the last of their trade goods, they were able to barter with the Clatsops for a single canoe. They still needed one more!  What did Lewis do? Did he send the men out further to find a tree suitable to make one? Did he try one last time to convince the Clatsops to let them have one? Did they start the journey home with some on foot until a suitable canoe could be procured? No! They stole one.

I am sure Lewis justified this in his mind. What is a single canoe compared to the glorious mission of his Corps? Two things to point out here. First, Lewis didn’t steal it. He ordered some of the men to go steal it. Second, if our only source for the tale of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was the Captains’ journals, we would not even know about the stolen Clatsop Canoe. Neither Lewis or Clark wrote about the incident. We only learn from one the Sargeant’s journals, one of those ordered to go steal the canoe.

Given the meticulous details written in the Captains’ journals (over 1,000,000 words in all), the dedication to journaling almost every day, and the significance of starting the journey home, one can only surmise Lewis (and Clark) knew it was wrong. It was guilt by omission!  Yet, we have no record of Lewis showing remorse or admitting he was wrong.

What’s the big deal, right? What’s one old canoe? Again, context. The canoe would have been very ornate. The Clatsop family would have held a blessing ceremony when they felled the tree. The canoe would have been hand carved. They would have had another blessing ceremony as the launched it the first time. Later, it would serve as the burial casket for the honor upon the maker’s death. Think about it. How would you feel if your car had been stolen…and you’re probably not planning on being buried in it!

Lewis had to fall a couple of notches in the eyes of his men. I know he did in mine. The leadership lessons here are many. The one that jumps to the top for me is simple: The ends do not justify the means…ever. As leaders, we cannot sacrifice our ethics or morals. As we have seen time and time again, this applies not only to our professional lives but in our personal lives as well. Eventually, it will impact the way others view you and the way you view yourself.

Lewis failed to live to his own ethical and moral standards. It is clear to me it impacted the way the men viewed him. He never seemed to have the same relationship with the men and even Clark on the remainder of the journey. When they returned, Clark enjoyed a much better relationship with the men and woman of the expedition than Lewis did. I believe it was due in large part to this failure.

When Heroes Fail…a final word…or two

When heroes fail, we have to learn from their failures even if they do not. We need to take the time to understand the context in which they failed. Putting ourselves in their shoes and in the shoes of those around them. Study the impact of their failure. Understand their failure. Identify the lessons and learn the lessons.

You are a leader. I am a leader. We will fail. We may not be seen as heroes to someone, but the impact can be just as great, if not greater. We have to learn from our failures. If the situation cannot be fixed, we have to learn the lesson and not repeat the failure. We also need to take the time to admit the failure to our followers and help them understand the lessons so they too can grow as leaders. You never know where the next heroes will come from…

Jeff Ton
Jeff is the Executive Vice President of Product and Service Development for Bluelock. He is responsible for driving the company’s product strategy and service vision and strategy. Jeff focuses on the evolving IT landscape and the changing needs of our customers, together with the Bluelock team, ensures our products and services meet our client's needs and drives value in their organizations now and in the future. Prior to joining Bluelock, Jeff spent 5 years at Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana where he led the development and implementation of the enterprise-wide information technology portfolio, including applications, infrastructure, security and telecommunications across the Goodwill business units. Taking a cloud-first approach, IT transformed into partner with the business untis, providing significant value throughout the organization. He has owned his own management consulting firm and was the CIO for Lauth Property Group. Prior to Lauth, Ton spent 14 years in various technology roles with Thomson Multimedia (RCA). He serves on various boards and advisory councils including: Hoosier Environmental Council board of directors, Indiana Network of Knowledge Governance Committee, Connected World Magazine Board of Advisors, CIT Industrial Advisory Board (IUPUI), SAVI Technical Advisory Committee (The Polis Center) and the Mud Creek Conservancy. Jeff also spends time as a keynote speaker, blogger and writer on a wide variety of topics, including leadership, employee development, technology, and business operations. Away from work, he and his wife enjoy family, canoeing, gardening and travel.
Jeff Ton

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