leadership traits of lewis and clark

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson oversaw the purchase from France of the vast Louisiana Territory, and afterward proposed a lengthy exploration of the territory, choosing his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis, to oversee it. Along with co-leader William Clark, the Lewis and Clark expedition set out to see if there was an all-water route to the Pacific coast, and to learn about trading conditions in the territory.


From May 1804 to September 1806, the crew explored and mapped the newly purchased territory, establishing an American presence before European countries could try to claim it. Along the way they studied plants, animals, and geographic features of this huge expanse, learned to trade with native residents, and came home with amazingly detailed and accurate maps, journals, and sketches, which were given to President Jefferson.

To say that times have changed dramatically since Lewis and Clark is an understatement, yet today’s executives can still draw valuable lessons from it. Here are 5 of them:

1. Be Prepared

Thomas Jefferson’s choice of Meriwether Lewis to lead the expedition wasn’t based on politics, but on his absolute confidence in Lewis’ skills. The same principle applied in turn to Lewis’ choice of William Clark as co-leader. Preparation for the journey started a year in advance, and had Lewis learning medicine from a prominent Philadelphia physician, and astronomy and navigation from esteemed astronomer Andrew Ellicott. Lewis, who had access to Thomas Jefferson’s complete library, seized the opportunity, consulting existing maps, reading books, and sharpening his science and geography skills.


2. Recognize Great Skills When You See Them

Just as President Jefferson recognized the outstanding skills of Meriwether Lewis, and Lewis recognized William Clark’s talents, today’s outstanding executive is the one who looks beyond the surface to see each team member’s skills, so that they may be put to the best use. Likewise, along the trip, Lewis and Clark knew when to ask advice of and defer to members of the expedition who had better knowledge of situations they encountered, from coping with bad weather to establishing relationships with natives.

3. Build Strong Relationships

The Lewis and Clark expedition didn’t just blaze a trail to the Pacific Northwest, but got to know people along the way and learned from them. For example, the guidance and exceptional equestrian skills of the Shoshone Indians helped the team over the imposing Bitterroot Mountains. Throughout the trip, even when they were almost all the way back to their St. Louis starting point, the team continued to trade and develop diplomatic relations with cultures they encountered. Professional relationships are the oil that keeps the engine of business running smoothly, and always will be.

4. Follow Through

Finally, today’s outstanding executive understands the power of simply not giving up. Follow-through is important whether you’re cooking dinner, closing a deal, or climbing a mountain. Lewis and Clark didn’t find a continuous waterway to the Pacific, but that didn’t stop them. Furthermore, they took advantage of the opportunity to catalog and sketch the natural habitats and to bring back plant, seed, and mineral specimens, knowing they would eventually be valuable. They learned some of the languages and practices of the native tribes, and in general followed through on the enormous commitment they had made to Thomas Jefferson.

5. Keep Good Records

There is really no excuse for not keeping good records in today’s world, particularly when you consider the extensive records that the Lewis and Clark team amassed during the two years they traveled the continent. Before heading back to St. Louis, the team constructed Fort Clatsop on the south bank of the Columbia River to overwinter and prepare for their return. But they didn’t just lie around doing nothing. Lewis in particular used the time to write all he could about the trip, especially about what the botany the team encountered in the old growth forests of the west. Consequently, once they were back east, they were inundated by requests from zoologists, botanists, and agricultural aficionados (including Thomas Jefferson), which only multiplied their opportunities.

What might it be like to embark on an outdoor adventure with your team? You don’t have to attempt the equivalent of finding the Northwest Passage, but getting outdoors and climbing a mountain as a team can confer multiple, long-lasting benefits. People display talents you didn’t know they had, and getting to know people in a context other than the one you’re used to strengthens team relationships. Today’s business leader can still learn from a major expedition that took place two centuries ago, because some lessons are timeless. I invite you to contact me about booking a speaking engagement and helping you and your team learn how to go from good to great through the power of adventure.