LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM LEWIS & CLARK (PART 1)
by John C. Maxwell
Before beginning, I’d like to thank my friend Ed Rowell. His
research and thoughts played a major role in this study.
On May 21, 2004, Americans celebrated the beginning of perhaps
the most amazing journey in American history. Two hundred years
prior, Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left St.
Louis, Missouri at 3:30 in the afternoon heading upstream on the
Their expedition, dubbed the Corps of Discovery, had been
commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to find the mythical
“Northwest Passage,” an all-water trade route across the
continent to the Pacific Ocean that explorers had searched for
almost 300 years. At stake was the fur trade, the continent’s
most easy exploitable natural resource.
Lewis and Clark had never seen the Pacific Ocean, nor did they
have an accurate sense of how far west the continent stretched.
Once they were a few days west of St. Lewis, their opportunities
for communication with home were nonexistent.
When they returned to St. Louis down the same river, they’d
covered more than 8,000 miles and been gone for 28 months. Long
feared dead, they came home as national heroes. Even today,
their journey overland across the continent is among the most
courageous journeys ever conceived and attempted.
Along the way they were to develop an accurate map of the
Missouri River basin, record all available information about
natural history and geology, and report on and begin building
relationships with native tribes they encountered.
They discovered 120 new species of animals and 178 new species of
plants. They were the first Europeans to cross the Continental
Divide. They were the first to see herds of buffalo, numbering
in the thousands, grazing on the largest grassland in the world,
and they were the first white men that most of the tribes they
met had ever seen.
One of the most remarkable accomplishments is that in spite of
the brutal grind of moving people, boats and tons of gear
upstream, serious accidents, life-threatening weather, and less
than peaceful contact with some of the continent’s earliest
residents, the Corps of Discovery experienced just one casualty.
It was a grand journey that still inspires and awes after two
hundred years. But there are no great journeys without great
leadership. And the journey across the American Continent is a
case study in leading where no one has gone before.
Without trust, the journey is over before it begins.
When asked to lead the expedition, Meriwether Lewis immediately
contacted a man that he had served under in the army, William
Clark. Lewis was a self-aware man, and he recognized that
Clark’s strengths would counter each of his own weaknesses.
Four years older, Clark had a strong leadership resume, having
served as a company commander. He was a popular, tough, and a
fearless woodsman. Clark had been raised in Kentucky, was an
accomplished river explorer who was usually with the fleet.
Lewis, on the other hand, was of Virginia aristocracy, having
lived much of his life among the educated, successful gentry of
the day. Lewis loved to walk and was often out front, days
ahead, scouting out the route. And when it came time to buy
horses to get across the mountains, he knew a good animal when
he saw it. Lewis was the camp doctor, Clark the camp counselor.
Most importantly, Clark offered a stability that Lewis was
unable to give. Lewis suffered, as his father had, from a
“melancholic spirit,” or “depressions of the mind.” Most modern
scholars look at the evidence and believe that he was bi-polar,
or manic-depressive. The journey gave him reason to shove back
the darkness, and his ability to keep going is a testimony to
his sheer strength and will.
Lewis’ offer to Clark was to be an equal leader in every
conceivable way, including rank and pay. Because the army
bureaucracy refused to recognize a co-commander, Clark did not
receive his promised captain’s commission. The two leaders never
mentioned it to the men, and for the next seven years, only Lewis
Clark, and Jefferson, and a clerk or two at the War Department
knew the truth. When asked as an old man to describe their
relationship, Clark replied, “Equal in every point of view.”
“Most of all, Lewis knew that Clark was competent to the task,
that his word was his bond, and that his back was steel. And
Clark knew the same about Lewis. Their trust in each other was
complete, even before they took the first step west together.
How this closeness came about cannot be known in any detail, but
that it clearly was a long time before the expedition—that cannot
Our true self-awareness forces us to place trust in others.
Lewis knew his limitations, and he sought a leader with
abilities to complement his strengths and weaknesses. In
selecting Clark, Lewis showed maturity in realizing he could not
lead the way alone. In allowing Clark equal rank and an equal
share of the credit, Lewis demonstrated remarkable security.
Competence is essential if trust is to be continued.
Lewis and Clark had differing skills, but each was a greatly
talented man. From their diaries, it is obvious that as the
journey progressed, their trust in each other deepened. They
had a sense of great security because of the mutual confidence
they placed in each other. Trust is not unfounded. Trust must
be built upon competence.
Trust is strengthened when trust is proven.
The two officers would have one opportunity after another in
which they literally put their lives into the hands of others on
the expedition. Surmounting each challenge, their trust
increased as they proved their merit.
The highest level of trust is expressed in obedience and
submission, even when there is a lack of understanding or
At one point on the journey, the explorers came to two rivers
and had to decide which one was the Missouri River. Lewis and
Clark’s choice went against the general consensus of their men.
Even while disagreeing, the men were willing to trust the
judgment of their leadership. The submission of the team at
such a critical juncture demonstrates their absolute faith in
The reward of trust is an intimate relationship that few ever
There is an intimacy when proven by time and experience and
competence, that only people that have gone through that trusting
experience ever realize. The attitude of the men displayed their
intimacy: “they would triumph together or they would die
“This article is used by
permission from Dr. John C. Maxwell’s free monthly e-newsletter
‘Leadership Wired’ available at www.INJOY.com.”