What lies ahead?: 3 Principles for Leading Teams in Uncertainty

They knew the Pacific Ocean lay to the west, but they were uncertain about what lay between it and the headwaters of the Missouri River. So, with a diverse team of experienced explorers, Lewis and Clark set out to find the elusive Northwest Passage. The rest is history.

The story of what Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery accomplished is packed with incredible lessons on leadership. Among them are principles that we can use to help us lead during uncertainty.

Don’t confuse “unknown” for “uncertain.” They are not the same thing. Whereas the unknown refers to things outside of knowledge, uncertainty refers to a lack of precise understanding. Most experienced leaders handle the unknown with ease because, well, they’ve accepted the fact that there are just some things that are unknown. Uncertainty, however, is harder to deal with because we feel like we should know more than we do. We know a little, but not enough to have complete control of the situation. A lack of control can be frustrating.

For many leaders, dealing with uncertainty is growing more and more common. Foreign wars, political upheaval, social conflicts, and unpredictable markets are just a few of the complexities contributing to the uncertainty. Lewis and Clark contended with uncertainty daily, yet they managed to successfully lead their team through it. Here are three lessons that we can take away from their example.

1. “Your people won’t follow you off the map unless they first know they can trust you on the map.” In his book, Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger explains that trust is the first determining factor when it comes to leading teams successfully through uncertainty. Using the example of Lewis and Clark, he highlights how the two leaders built trust with their team by demonstrating competence, consistently enforcing high standards, and treating every member of the team fairly. By the time the Corps of Discovery had entered uncharted territory, the team’s trust in their leaders was so high that they never doubted a successful journey.

2. Keep simple problems simple. When faced with the realization that a smooth river passage through the Rocky Mountains didn’t exist, Lewis and Clark didn’t complicate the problem they faced. Though they realized the journey would be hard, the problem was simple. Rather than dwell on the fact that they were equipped for river travel, not for crossing the Rockies on foot, they determined to make the necessary adjustments and proceed on their journey. They would have been perfectly justified in turning around and heading home, but they didn’t. Their problem was simple; cross the Rockies on foot. So that’s what they did.

3. If not you, who? Prior to leading the Corps of Discovery, both Lewis and Clark had led successful careers. When the going got tough on their journey to the Pacific, they may have asked themselves, “Why am I doing this?” Based on his journal entries, we know that Lewis wrestled with that thought. But when he weighed benefits of backing out with those of proceeding on, he concluded that the cause was a worthy one. So, to the benefit of the men and women he led and to the new American Republic, he stayed. When the weight of the responsibilities you carry in your role as leader starts to get heavy, you might also wonder why you should continue the effort. But remember this, your leadership efforts have purpose. They matter. The positive impact you have on others matters. Your team’s cause matters. Don’t turn back now.

Like Lewis and Clark, as you lead your team in uncertainty, you’re charting a map for others to follow. It might not be perfect, but it helps add precision to the map that will aid others in their journey. That’s a worthy cause, so, in the words of Lewis and Clark, “Proceed on.”

What lies ahead?: 3 Principles for Leading Teams in Uncertainty was originally published in Horizon Performance on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.