There is a lot of talk these days — well, almost all days — about leadership.
Many times I think we are talking past each other when we discuss leadership. This is because people use different definitions for the word.
I don’t have a short definition, but I have an example.
When I was much younger I read “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose. This book is an account of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-6. Or to be more precise, the book is about Meriwether Lewis, a complicated and flawed man who lead a 6000 mile expedition through uncharted territory, natives which were alternately helpful and antagonistic, through winter storms, in near starvation, over rapids, through harsh mountains, and more, much more. One man died of a ruptured appendix. Everyone else survived even though everyone back home had given them up for dead. It is a great story. You may or may not agree with Stephen Ambrose’s interpretations of the trek, but what caught my eye was the author’s description of what made Meriwether Lewis a great leader. If you plan to be a leader, you should ponder this assessment.
“The most important [of his talents] was his ability as a leader of men. He was born to leadership, and reared for it, studied it in his army career, then exercised it on the expedition.
How he lead is no mystery. His techniques were time-honored. He knew his men. He saw to it that they had dry socks, enough food, sufficient clothing. He pushed them to but never beyond the breaking point. He got out of them more than they knew they had to give. His concern for them was that of a father for his son. He was the head of a family.
He could lose his temper with them, and berate them in front of their fellow soldiers. He could be even sterner: he had a few of them take fifty lashes well laid on. But in the judgement of the enlisted men, he was fair.
He didn’t make many mistakes. His orders were clear, concise, and correct. Perhaps the finest tribute to his leadership abilities came at the time of the Marias decision [which fork of the Missouri river to proceed up]. All the men thought the Marias was the river to follow, but they said to Lewis and Clark “very cheerfully that they were ready to follow us any wher we thought proper to direct.”
He shared the work. He cooked for his men, and poled a canoe. He was a hunter and fisherman. From crossing the Lolo Trail to running the rapids of the Columbia, he never ordered the men to do what he wouldn’t do. When it was appropriate, he shared the decision making.
These are some of the qualities that make for a good company commander. Lewis had them in abundance, plus some special touches that made him a much loved commander. He had a sense, a feel, for how his family was doing. He knew exactly when to take a break, when to issue a gill [of whiskey], when to push for more, when to encourage, when to inspire, when to tell a joke, when to be tough.
He knew how to keep a distance between himself and the men, and just how big it should be. He knew his profession and was proud of it and one of the best at it.”