Lewis and Clark, a historical example of stories of purpose

John's reflections, leadership 1 Comment

Last night, while watching images of Mars on television, I began thinking about the concept of exploration in general. When I was a child in school, I was always fascinated by stories of the frontier, of courageous individuals and groups who ventured into the unknown. In high school and at university, my favorite subject was world history, and in particular accounts of man’s grand movements of adventure and discovery.

As we have seen the past few weeks on this blog, articulating a common dream and a deep sense of significance is a key element of success for group ventures. Remarkable teams of recent times—from Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls to the Macintosh group of Steve Jobs—often share this sense of larger mission and purpose. And, the more I read history, the more I find examples of this phenomenon in a wide variety of fields, including the dangerous and hardship-laden voyages of exploration.  In fact, some of mankind’s most remarkable feats, events where nearly impossible goals were reached by a team, have their roots in the leaders’ ability to imbue the group with the feeling that they are accomplishing something profoundly meaningful.

Probably because of my interest in exploration and in leadership, a few years ago I picked up the book Into the Unknown. In this text, author Jack Uldrich describes the leadership lessons of the famous journey of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, a three-year expedition into the then uncharted territory of the American Northwest. This 1803 mission is still widely considered one of the most fascinating and successful exploratory voyages in history.  Facing immense adversity and seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the team members were nonetheless able to remain focused on their goal, and to achieve feats of endurance or physical prowess that would today seem impossible.

Commitment to a higher calling: In Uldrich’s account, one gleans the distinct impression that the outstanding attribute of the mission, and the overarching reason for success, was its commitment to a higher purpose. Lewis and Clark’s journey of discovery was dedicated to far more than innovation or profit. It was about nation building, about President Thomas Jefferson and the Manifest Destiny of the United States to expand to the Pacific, about scientific and cultural breakthroughs, and about establishing an enduring base for commercial trade.

Lewis and Clark’s commitment to a loftier calling was truly a central catalyst for the expedition’s remarkable achievements. The dream of advancing the cause of mankind strengthened the group’s resolve in times of danger, allowing optimism to prevail over pessimism, curiosity and risk-taking over complacency, perseverance over the desire for comfort.

The Corps of Discovery, as the group was called, was truly convinced that they were doing something unique and noble. When Meriwether Lewis wrote of his desire to “live for mankind”, and to “relieve distressed humanity”, these were not the empty phrases we often see in company mission statements. Written during the expedition, Lewis’ journal entry of Aug. 18, 1805 demonstrates a true philosophical commitment to a grand agenda: “This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this world. I reflected that I had yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation, and resolve in the future…to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.”

Lewis and Clark were able to instill a feeling of pride in their team members by providing a vision of destiny, of an exciting future that they were building together. To me, their pride and sense of destiny seem quite similar to those of the Macintosh team or Phil Jackson’s Bulls, groups who were also convinced that they were doing something novel and fundamentally different from those who had gone before them. And, when people take pride in performing a noteworthy task, they are capable of exploits that may seem impossible or superhuman. As Jon Katzenbach writes in his 2003 book, Why Pride Matters More Than Money, “People who are emotionally committed to something…behave in ways that defy logic and often produce results that are well beyond expectations.  They pursue impossible dreams, work ridiculous hours, and resolve unsolvable problems.”

The example of Lewis and Clark demonstrates once again the power of motivating others with group stories of commitment to a higher calling. Winning leaders provide a grand sense of scale, showing followers the opportunity to make a difference in a bigger arena than they had ever imagined.  In communicating stories of a higher calling, and inviting followers to become part of something larger than themselves, winning leaders motivate by touching an element of the universal human search for meaning and purpose.

One Response to Lewis and Clark, a historical example of stories of purpose

  1. Esther Vogelpoel says:

    Your analysis of their sense of purpose sets of a spark in me to focus on my own deeper purpose. Very inspiring. If more people connect to their higher calling, positive changes will occur.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>