It’s 1803, and President Thomas Jefferson has just completed the Louisiana Purchase. Now he needs to learn about this new land and open up trade routes to the west.
The story of how Meriwether Lewis and William Clark crossed the continent is generally well known, but what many forget is that they didn’t do it alone. They had with them a polyglot team of 43 people comprising two genders and three races.
Yet somehow in a very short time they were able to assemble and launch an exploratory expedition that would eventually cover the territory of 10 future states, and open the way for trade and settlement for the coming century.
What makes this all the more fascinating is reading their personal accounts of the challenges they faced and their struggles to overcome them.
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When the team left St. Louis, they faced the unknown. They could guess at what some of their trials would be – hostile tribes, treacherous waterways, rugged mountain crossings, wild animals, thousands of miles to travel without even knowing for sure where the next meal was coming from. Jefferson even thought they might encounter dinosaurs. They encountered all of these (except the dinosaurs), and more.
Yet despite all their trials, they lost only one man (due to disease), endured only one battle with a hostile tribe, and even managed to add a baby to their party. The story of how their leadership made this all possible is one of the most remarkable feats to me.
Among their keys to success, I think the two leaders do an especially effective job of establishing and enforcing standards of behavior early in the expedition, and leading by personal example. Their ability to stay calm in the midst of crisis, decisiveness of action, and ability to problem-solve in the near total absence of critical information are incredible. Yet in their daily journals, which they knew would be read by senior leaders and the public, they are honest about their shortcomings and lessons learned.
It’s in these journals that I first heard of the “Hudson’s Bay Start,” a simple but effective technique to make sure their expedition started off on the right foot, and one that we can use today for the same effect.
The Journals of Lewis and Clark makes for a great day-by-day read of their journey. You have a front row seat that allows you to watch the adventure unfold through the eyes of the men who led the expedition. Join them to grapple with the dangers, make daily life and death decisions, discover the west, and see how great leaders can accomplish amazing things.
Enjoy this book, or check out these other book notes from some great works on the topic of leadership.