Lesson Number One – Start with Why … (second in a series of seven).
To understand the Lewis & Clark expedition, a bit of context is in order. It was July 4, 1803; our nation’s 27th birthday. The United States had just purchased the Louisiana territory from Napoleon. This was not just New Orleans, it was all the land from the West that drained into the Mississippi! This was huge! At 825,000 square miles, the purchase had essentially doubled the size of the US and it cost a mere 15 million dollars. Arguably, the best land bargain ever made!
On this same date, something else exciting was happening! Thomas Jefferson gave Meriwether Lewis a letter of general credit. The letter said he could draw on any agency of the US government, anywhere in the world, for anything he wanted. It also said he could call on citizens of any nation for supplies and necessities, for an exploring expedition to the Pacific.
This was the most unlimited letter of credit ever issued by an American president and truly underscores 1) the importance of the mission in the eyes of Thomas Jefferson and 2) the trust he had in Meriwether Lewis to go execute the job!
Jefferson and Lewis Started with Why!
An unlimited letter of credit also represents clear expedition goals! Jefferson knew WHY* he wanted Lewis & Clark to go! He wanted them to…
· Explore and map rivers flowing into the Missouri
· Learn about all routes and traders in the new territory
· Study every Indian tribe
· Gather data on geography, flora and fauna
· Search for a navigable Northwest Passage
Wow! This mission was BIG! It was bigger than any personal ambition of Jefferson or Lewis. They could see that success in these objectives would bring scientific knowledge and a huge commercial impact for the United States!
The objectives outlined by Jefferson and Lewis certainly contributed to Lewis’ courage in preparing for the expedition. Lewis knew in his heart what the expectations were, and he was inspired by the potential he and Jefferson had to change the world! From the innermost feelings of his heart he could exhibit courage in what was required of him to get the job done… because it was more than a job… Lewis wanted to change the world!
The “Why” of the expedition gave Lewis the Courage to Prepare
Meriwether Lewis spent many months learning from Jefferson and the best scientists of the day about navigation, classification of plants and animals, and considering the Indian tribes and people he would encounter. He had to assemble the equipment and come up with a team that would enable him to meet his objectives.
With the expedition goals clearly fixed in his mind and his heart, Lewis was able to persevere through his education and the difficult, and often frustrating, gathering of supplies, construction of boats and assembly of a team.
The Courage to Evaluate our Why
As I considered the Lewis & Clark expedition and their massive journey of discovery, I reflected on my own journey. An unlimited letter of credit sounded like it would be really useful on my journey. I wondered, “Do my business partners and leaders trust me enough to give me any resource I need to get my job done?”
But I realized that Lewis & Clark did not have a successful expedition because of their unlimited credit! They were successful because they knew WHY they were out there. The credit just helped them as they figured out WHAT to do and HOW to do it in support of their WHY.
Our leadership journeys are similar. Can we clearly say WHY we are working at our job?
This concept really became clear to me a few years ago when I read the book by Simon Sinek entitled “Start With Why”. I realized that if I could not clearly state the purpose, cause, or belief of my company, see how my work was contributing to that objective, and finally, if that work did not resonate with my personal WHY, then my chances of happiness and success in my work would be severely limited.
So I went looking for a company that had a strong WHY that resonated with my own! It took some perseverance and innovation to search, but since I knew what was in my heart (what I really wanted) I had the courage I needed! I found a great company with a great purpose and a great culture!
I get a ton of satisfaction in my work because I know the purpose, cause and beliefs of my company, and its “WHY” resonates with my personal passion to help small business succeed! I had started a small software company many years ago with a partner and we made it through some challenging times that culminated in a successful sale to a bigger, publicly-traded software company, because we knew WHY we were in business.
So, as you consider the lesson learned by Meriwether Lewis as he started his expedition to the Northwest, ask yourself these important questions:
- What is my “Why”?
- Is it bigger than me?
- Does my personal “Why” resonate with the “Why” of my company?
“Start with Why” is the first of Five Lessons about courage that are as applicable for business leaders today as they were 200 years ago when they were first encountered and learned by the leaders of the Corps of Discovery. Here’s a recap of the five lessons:
- Start with Why
- Beware your Bias
- See your Guides
- Prize the Power of Good Books
- Find your North Star
Watch for my next post where we’ll discuss lesson number two – The Courage to Beware your Bias.
Plus, if you’ll follow me through the series, I’ll reveal a surprising sixth lesson that ties all the other ones together.
* Uncharted Leadership, Lewis and Clark in the Unknown – Obstacles to Effective Decision Making, By Matthew Wells, 2014 p. 41