Five Modern Day Business Lessons Inspired By The Corp of Discovery

March 5, 2014 - Jeffrey Sumpter

As business builders and team leaders, there is a good deal we can learn from the epic adventures of Capt. Meriwether Lewis and the Corp of Discovery more than two centuries ago.

The paddle trip from St. Louis to the mouth of the Columbia and back, has been compared to the moon shot, and rightfully so. It's hard to imagine a modern day equivalent, given the degree of unknowns and associated risks. Even Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic fails to fit the bill, given how far space exploration has come since the 1960s.

Corp of Discovery Lesson #1: Prepare  

Twelve dozen pocket mirrors. One hundred and thirty rolls of tobacco. Eight brass kettles, plus ivory combs, silk ribbons and sewing needles. These were some of the designated "Presents for Indians" that Lewis purchased before embarking on the greatest expedition in American history.

Clearly, the Captain's rigorous preparedness had a lot to do with the Corp of Discovery's ultimate success. In modern day business terms, preparation takes many forms. When starting a business, you research market opportunities and scout the competition. Once you’re up and running, you need to prepare for big sales meetings, staffing needs, tax time and a thousand other variables.

Corp of Discovery Lesson #2: Adapt

Planning is key, no question, but there are things in business we can't plan for. Thus, a company's ability to adapt to conditions is key to its long-term survival.

Lewis and his partner William Clark knew to expect the unexpected. Members of their party may have been looking for unicorns, gargantuan woolly mastodons and seven-foot-tall beavers (alleged to be living in the West), but what they found was Great Falls in Montana, and the Rocky Mountains beyond.

Great Falls provided a particularly difficult challenge. The Corps hiked 18 miles to get around a series of five waterfalls. The ground was rocky, uneven, and hard. Prickly pear cacti were everywhere and the men wore through their moccasins every two days. Yet, they adapted and persevered, just like every business must do.

Corp of Discovery Lesson #3: Survive

On September 21, 1805, Lewis wrote in his diary: "We killed a few pheasants, and I killed a prairie wolf which together with the balance of our horse beef and some crawfish which we obtained in the creek enabled us to make one more hearty meal, not knowing where the next was to be found."

Hardship comes in many forms when you own and run a business. It could be cash flow one month or team retention the next, and either one might result in less money earned, more hours worked, or both. Yet, entrepreneurs find a way to grind it out and make it work.

Corp of Discovery Lesson #4: Learn

As a business owner or principal, you’ve prepared, adapted and survived. Fantastic, now you can get to work!

Lewis and Clark entered the West with open minds and open notebooks. All told, they discovered 122 mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, as well as 179 new plant species. Lewis and Clark also noted 48 Indian tribes on their journey. Clark, who had training in cartography, helped to enrich geographical knowledge with his relatively crude field maps.

Whatever your field, there’s always more to learn, so why not show up at work each day with Lewis and Clark’s “open notebook” in mind?

Cross training is another way to build organizational strength. The complexity and demands of today’s workplace requires that we master more than one skill, like Lewis and Clark.

Corp of Discovery Lesson #5: Inform

Can you imagine how much nervous anticipation President Jefferson must have felt, waiting for more than two years for news from Capt. Lewis? Many Americans, possibly even the President, believed the Corps had perished.

As they neared St. Louis on the return, Lewis drafted a letter addressed to Clark's brother George in Kentucky, the site of the closest newspaper. This version of the expedition was immediately published in the Frankfort Palladium on 6 October 1806. Much like a modern day press release, the captains' joint letter became the news article of record and spread to every news outlet in the nation.

It is natural for business owners and operators, especially small to medium-sized businesses, to focus on the operational tasks at hand. At the same time, it’s essential to have a productive system for relaying important brand messaging, or all that hard work may be for naught. 

Tags: business, entrepreneur, leadership, strategic planning, strategy, vision