Seven Principles for Business As Mission from Lewis and Clark

My wife and I visited memorials to the Lewis and Clark Expedition at the mouth of the Columbia River last weekend with our two daughters.  On one of the buildings overlooking the Pacific Ocean were the words, “The object of your mission – the Pacific Ocean” – Thomas Jefferson.

Being moderately curious, I came home to research a little more of what President Jefferson called the Corps of Discovery Expedition.  The President’s instructive letter to Meriwether Lewis was written on June 20, 1803 inviting him to lead the expedition.  He accepted. He was 28 years old.

What was that mission? What was the object?  As I listened and learned I kept thinking about Kingdom Businesses, about those other pioneers of the 21st century, going to the ends of the earth with an entrepreneurial spirit and capacity; and similarly, with a ‘mission’.

So, what was Jefferson’s mission for Lewis and Clark’s team?  The letter stated that,  “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, and such principal streams of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado, or any other river, may offer the most direct and practicable water-communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce.”

It reminded me of the Simon Sinek TED talk (with its 51 million views online) which proposed that every leader start with the “WHY”.  Sinek posits that the “why” (purpose) comes before the “how” (process) and before the “what” (product).  The “why” must be communicated right off the bat.  In reference to commerce he states that, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.”  That must be why I recently bought masks from a business employing victims of human trafficking.

President Jefferson knew that when he clearly specified why the expedition received funding from Congress and a mandate from the president.  The United States had recently acquired much of the area with the Louisiana Purchase and Jefferson wanted to establish ownership for the purpose of commercial development.  That required understanding the native population and the geography of the area.

What principles can be learned from this historical vignette?

  1. The person is important! The most important factor may be the right person who is up to the task and capable for it.  Lewis’ age for the three-year journey was between his age of 29 and 32.
  2. It is important to know when to pivot. The expedition had hoped to find a waterway to the Pacific but when that proved impossible, they decided to task Sacajawea to negotiate with the Shoshone Indians for some horses to navigate the Rocky Mountains by land.
  3. Resources are important. Thanks to the US Congress, they had the equipment they needed and the resources to trade, barter and purchase supplies. In addition, the information from earlier sailors of the Pacific and British explorers in Canada provided to be helpful knowledge.
  4. Stamina and determination are required for first-time endeavors. They faced incredible obstacles, which would have caused the average person to turn back – difficulties such as diseases, injuries, hostile Indians, and difficult conditions (while at the mouth of the Columbia if rained all but six of the 106 days they were camped at Fort Clatsop).
  5. A clear purpose. Every day they made progress or learned something; they could recognize they were making it one step closer to the objective proposed by Jefferson in one short paragraph.
  6. Training, coaches and advisors are important. They received medical training before departure.  Both men had military experience and having qualified friendly translators for their linguistic and cultural inadequacies was vital (Sacagawea’s husband had a French heritage).
  7. Harry Truman once said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” It is a sad quirk of history that Lewis and Clark received little honor upon their return, with Lewis dying poor and dejected three years later. History books did not record their important efforts until about a century later.

I would encourage every person planning to start to develop a Kingdom Business, to think like Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.  Treat your proposed endeavor by asking:

  • Am I the right person?
  • Am I willing to pivot when necessary?
  • Where can I get the necessary resources?
  • Why am I really doing this?
  • Do I have the determination to fight the obstacles and follow through on the project?
  • What training, experience, and coaching help to I have?
  • Can I do it for its own sake, even without credit?

Larry Sharp, Director of Training, IBEC Ventures 

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