Several years ago, leadership guru Warren Bennis published research that suggested a leader’s ability to inspire confidence, loyalty and hard work in people can be reliably predicted by how he or she reacts to adversity.
I ran into many examples of this recently when reading the classic book “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose. It is a detailed description of the Lewis & Clack expedition to be the first representatives of the young, emerging United States of America to find a route across North America to reach the Pacific Ocean. It took place in 1803-1806 under the outstanding leadership of Meriwether Lewis, who was hand-picked by President Thomas Jefferson to lead the effort.
Here is one such example of Lewis’s handling of adversity. In paddling upstream in canoes on the western reaches of the Missouri River in central Montana, Lewis’s group of 20 or so men came upon what are called the Great Falls of the Missouri River. Lewis camped at the east end of the falls and had his men scout out the challenge, determining that they were faced with about 12 miles of huge falls, some with a drop of more than 20 feet, and almost constant rapids.
Realizing it was not going to be a simple portage around one or two falls where they could carry their canoes and many boxes of supplies, he spotted a cottonwood tree and found it measured 22 inches in diameter. He put six men to work cutting it down and then sawing it crosswise to make wheels. His men suggested that the hardwood mast of one of the large canoes be cut to make axles. The two wagons they constructed were used to pull the canoes and baggage the twelve mile length of the falls, finally arriving at western edge of the falls where the expedition continued by canoe.
Here are three key characteristics of handling adversity that Warren Bennis believes signal strong leadership, and clearly Meriwether Lewis exhibited them very well:
1.) Open Communications and Integrity – Be completely objective and open with the facts and alternatives and listen closely to ideas and comments of others.
2.) Engage Others – Involve people in collecting the facts, analyzing the problem, and in formulating and eventually implementing the solution.
3.) Adaptive Capacity – Drive the plan to completion, while being creative and flexible as you face various twists and turns on the path to success.
When leaders push an organization forward and overcome challenge after challenge, using the characteristics noted above, the troops quickly develop strong confidence in the leader and in the organization’s ability to achieve great things.