Fellow Vistage Chair and Leadership Coach Greg Bustin shares some insights on how Lewis and Clark role modeled good leadership.

Lewis + Clark + You

10 Lessons from this Daring Expedition

On August 12, 1805, Meriwether Lewis climbed the eastern slope of the Continental Divide toward the realization of a lifelong goal.

Lewis was on the verge of becoming the first American to view with his own eyes the fabled Northwest passage—an all-water route that connected the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

So begins Jack Uldrich’s fascinating examination of the daring two-and-a-half-year expedition many consider the greatest leadership team in American history. Into The Unknown.

The remarkable journey of Lewis, Clark, four dozen other men and Sacagawea (the Shosone teenager who carried her infant son on her back for 5,000 of the expedition’s 8,000 miles) offers 10 lessons for today’s leaders wrestling with an unknown future.

The Background

Relations between President Thomas Jefferson and the Federalist-dominated Congress were so strained Jefferson secretly requested funds to explore the new territory acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. A budget of $2,500 ($57,000 in today’s dollars) was approved.

The expedition’s primary objectives were to:

  1. Map, study and describe the region, its flora and fauna while establishing diplomatic relations with Native Americans.
  2. Locate a practical water route across the western half of North America.
  3. Establish an American presence in the territory before Britain and other European powers claimed it.

Scientific discoveries—though numerous—were secondary objectives.

The Lewis and Clark expedition covered more than 8,000 miles over 863 days transporting thousands of pounds of food and equipment. They consumed nine pounds of meat daily, totaling 6,000 calories. They battled frostbite, fires and flooding; grizzly bears, wolves, rattlesnakes and stampeding buffalo; dysentery, malaria and near-starvation. There were 54 life-threatening incidents. Yet only one man died—from a burst appendix—that even the best doctors of the day could not have saved.

Total cost: $50,000—the equivalent of $1.14 million in today’s dollars.

Priceless value: As Dayton Duncan said in Ken Burns’ documentary, Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, “Lewis and Clark at their best is America at its best.”

Here are the lessons.

10 Leadership Lessons of Lewis and Clark

  1. The Principle of a Higher Calling. “Lewis and Clark wanted to leave their mark on the world by expanding the base of human knowledge…and to further the cause of liberty.” A commitment to these higher purposes—beyond power, glory, ego and wealth—“shines through their journals, and it is clear [these higher purposes] affected virtually every action and decision Lewis and Clark made.”
  2. The Principle of Shared Leadership. Jefferson selected Lewis for his knowledge and “firmness of constitution and character.” Lewis selected Clark as his co-commander and made him “equal in every respect.”
  3. The Principle of Strategic Preparation. “They prepared meticulously and ran out of only three items (trading beads, tobacco and whiskey). They literally traded the jackets off their back for a canoe.”
  4. The Principle of Diversity. Each person was chosen solely on merit. And while Lewis and Clark were confident leaders, they “had enough respect for their team to allow every person—including Sacagawea and York [a slave]—to vote on the location of their winter camp.”
  5. The Principle of Compassionate Discipline. “They could administer 100 lashes as punishment when necessary…but at the end of the day would reward [their men] by naming rivers and streams in their honor.”
  6. The Principle of Leading from the Front. Lewis and Clark had dozens of daily significant responsibilities and they pushed their men to the brink of exhaustion. Yet they “were not above getting out of the boat and pushing it upriver, or ‘swinging their pack’ to shoulder their share of the daily burden.”
  7. The Principle of Learning from Others. They made serious mistakes, including one experiment that “cost them 12 days during the height of the best travelling season, but never stopped learning and always stayed open to new ways of doing things.”
  8. The Principle of Positive Thinking. Lewis and Clark “demonstrated the internal fortitude to listen to their men [when confronting] the prospect of starvation, but never once considered turning back.”
  9. The Principle of Aggressive Analysis. “Their flexibility, as well as their ability to weigh the cost and benefits [of the risks before them] was the epitome of their entire journey.”
  10.  The Principle of Developing Team Spirit. It was during the first six months of their journey that Lewis and Clark “abandoned their old style of military discipline” because they realized “they would need to rely more on each other.” The more brutal the journey, the more their trust in one another deepened.

Lewis and Clark had little idea what lay before them. They battled adversity at nearly every turn. Yet in their journals, the phrase “Proceed on” is repeated numerous times. If you’re a leader, the idea to “Proceed on” has never been more essential.

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