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Monday, June 06, 2005

The Courage to Chart New Courses

Two hundred years ago this month as Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery made their way up the Missouri River, they came “to the entrance of a very considerable river.” According to all their intelligence, the river wasn’t supposed to be there. In a great understatement, Lewis noted in his journal that this fact “astonishes us a little.”

He then added “[a]n interesting question was now to be determined; which of these was the Missouri.” It was more than an interesting question. It was a question fraught with danger and it had to be correctly answered if the Corps of Discovery were to successfully cross the Rocky Mountains and reach the Pacific before winter set in. A wrong decision would have jeopardized the entire expedition.

Lewis and Clark quickly dispatched two small parties down each river in an attempt to discern which was the true Missouri. The groups returned with inconclusive evidence. Every member of the Corps—with the exceptions of the two captains who remained open-minded—felt the north fork was the Missouri. Their reasoning was simple. Up to that point the Missouri had been slow, brown and muddy and because the waters of the north fork matched these characteristics, they assumed it was the continuation of the same river.

The group’s thinking was the equivalent of someone today (particularly today’s politicians) saying that the future is going to look like the past and therefore the surest path to success is to continue along the most similar-looking route.

After traveling down the separate forks themselves, Lewis and Clark concluded otherwise. At some point in the future they reasoned, the river must run faster, colder and clearer because of melting snows from the mountains. As such, they declared the south fork to be the true Missouri.

Their controversial decision was met with wide-spread opposition. In fact, the expedition’s most skilled boatmen and best navigator “declared it as his opinion that the [north] fork was the true genuine Missouri and could be no other.”

To Lewis and Clark’s immense credit, they stuck to their conviction and, after discussing their rationale with their team, ordered everyone down the south fork. It proved to be the right decision.

On the bicentennial of this event, it is fitting to recall the episode not just because of its historical significance to the mission’s success, but because of its relevance for today’s leaders.

As modern advances in information technology, biotechnology and nanotechnology continue their relentless—almost exponential—advances and the forces of globalization continue unabated, even the most established businesses will be presented with an increasing number of new “forks” that challenge old assumptions and represent new paradigms.

Many knowledgeable people will dismiss the notion that the future will be radically different today and confidently declared it can “be no other” way. But, like Lewis and Clark, it is the job of today’s leaders to think differently about the future, challenge conventional wisdom, and have the courage to move their organizations in bold new directions. As a candidate for the United States Senate, I intend to do exactly that.