Undaunted Courage is one of the great stories in American history. When Merriweather Lewis and William Clark departed St. Louis in May, 1804 on what was then called the Corps of Discovery Expedition, they actually failed in their stated purpose. Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to find “the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce” their 2 year journey did not find a contiguous water route across the continent.
Nevertheless, their expedition can be regarded as successful because they did find much more and they did extend the sovereignty of the fledgling United States government over the continent. They made the trip to the Pacific Ocean and back, gathered information about the resources included in the Louisiana Purchase, and made notable contributions to science. Their skills as leaders are beyond question and their accomplishments as explorers and emissaries of the President are beyond question.
It is their ability to handle the unknowns of the journey that concern us here. Lewis and Clark were highly competent strategic planners. A close examination of their journals and the testimony of those who accompanied them attest to that. The embarkation into the unknown, to boldly go where no one had gone before, testify of excellence in the entire team, leaders and followers.
The very word “leadership” implies going somewhere, doing something. If vision is the ultimate destination planning is the key to a successful journey. Travelers need the following 9 things.
- They need an idea of where they are going and that it makes sense. It must connect in some logical manner with the overall business one is in. A commission from the President helped, but that alone is inadequate. One must connect the dots, to employ a tired phrase from the vocabulary of consultants. The trip must make sense.
- They need a reason to make the trip with you, preferably more than one reason. “Because” is not good enough. Neither is “I said so.” This is the first step into buy-in, that intangible bot oh so real element of voluntary cooperation and energetic enthusiasm.
- They need to know that the journey is not a trip to fantasy land. Always deal in facts not opinions, in truth not speculation. The unknowns hiding in the future are threatening enough. The assurances found in the familiarity of past patterns and manageable surroundings are sticky. Breaking free of them demands that something desirable and real lay within reach.
- They need to know what to expect along the way. Even if you don’t know, they need to feel like you can handle it. Effective leaders never let on they are in the dark or without answers. Their fears will probably be bigger than real life. Fear and anxiety magnifies the unknown and you can bring it down to manageable size.
- They need an answer to the question “Are we there yet?” The enthusiasm found in launches of new ventures soon wears off. Celebrate incremental progress. It helps cut the journey into manageable into pieces.
- They need sustenance on the journey. Your input here is absolutely critical. Stay connected. Stay communicative. Stay engaged. Stay positive. Stay optimistic and expectant.
- They need courage and motivation to continue the trip. See #’s 5 and 6. Weariness sets in. Don’t press too hard or too much. Allow downtime and recreation which “re-creates” the initial feelings of excitement and renews enthusiasm.
- They need assurance that the trip is worth the effort. If you’re not sure, if you’re discouraged, and you transmit that to your team, they will be discouraged and uncertain, too. Keep the vision foremost in your thinking.
- They need a reasonable expectation that it will be successful. No one likes a lost cause. Participants in suicidal missions are hard to find. Everyone needs to feel significant and that the things to which they give their lives and efforts need to be worthy of their best efforts. If the objective is not, don’t even bother. Give yourself only to things which will make a great deal of significance when you succeed. Don’t ask others to do anything else.
- They need to know that you can handle surprises. You do this based on your history with them and, if you’re new, by pulling off wins. If you exaggerate, if you fail early on, the journey will be even more difficult, perhaps even impossible.
- They need to know they can meet the milestones set for the itinerary and why they are missed. Don’t be over-optimistic here. Your staff functions in the real world, or at least they should, and so must you. Use your experience to set reasonable and realistic goals remembering that if anything can go wrong, it will.
Lewis and Clark pulled it off. You can too.