Saturday, November 21, 2009

Diversity Is Strength

From 1804 to 1806, Army officers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led an amazing team known as the "Corps of Discovery" on an 8000-mile journey over 863 days into the unknown reaches of the western United States and safely home again. They were commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to find an all-water thoroughfare- the fabled "Northwest Passage"- to the Pacific Ocean. Though they failed in that mission (no such waterway existed), they succeeded in exploring and documenting virtually everything they saw along the way, establishing the boundaries of the young nation, and opening the great American West to future expansion.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Lewis and Clark and their incredible journey of discovery is that they achieved this feat- in a day and age when people gave no thought to the importance of celebrating and incorporating differences- with a team of talented individuals who were truly diverse in the broadest sense of the term. Lewis and Clark dramatically demonstrated a fundamental principle that all modern-day business leaders should know and understand: diversity is strength.

We all remember the story from our school days of Sacagawea, the sixteen-year-old Shoshone Indian woman who accompanied the expedition. She was the wife of Toussaint Charbonneau, who had been added to the team en route as an interpreter. Sacagawea was a nursing mother who traversed 5000 miles with her infant son Jean Baptiste (known as "Pomp") on her back. There is a common misconception that she guided the expedition throughout the journey, which she did not, but her value to the Corps of Discovery was nevertheless profound. She was skilled and knowledgeable in field craft: building shelters, making and repairing clothing, and finding food. Through her quick thinking, she once saved valuable equipment and supplies when a canoe nearly capsized.

Most important, Sacagawea served as the physical embodiment of the Corps of Discovery's peaceful intentions. She was instrumental in securing necessary cooperation from Native American tribes along the way. Meriwether Lewis described Sacagawea as "our only dependence for a friendly negotiation with the Snake [Shoshone] Indians on whom we depend for horses to assist us in our portage from the Missouri to the Columbia River."

Another important member of the team was York, who was William Clark's black slave. In a time when it was a criminal offense for a slave to be taught how to operate a gun, York carried a musket throughout the expedition and used it with great skill to hunt. York was valuable during the many months spent rafting on a river because, unlike other members of the expedition, he could swim. York physically accompanied Clark on all of the most dangerous phases of the mission, suggesting that Clark fully trusted York's ability to handle any perilous situation. Finally, by virtue of his skin color, York fascinated the Indian tribes encountered on the journey. They referred to him as "Big Medicine." He was perceived as having greater value because of his uniqueness, and made negotiations with the Indians easier than they would otherwise have been. In the end, because of the special gifts they each brought, Sacagawea and York became regarded, in effect, as fully equal members of the team.

The Corps of Discovery was also diverse in less obvious ways. In an era when social status mattered a great deal, Lewis and Clark did not select a single member of the expedition based on any criteria other than merit. They cast their net far and wide in search of people who were not just physically strong, but who also possessed intelligence, discipline, and distinctive skills. One of the men they hired was a master carpenter; another was a veteran blacksmith. They recruited a tailor, a fisherman, a boatman, and several excellent hunters. They hired interpreters who would help them in their discussions with Native American tribes. The team members came from a variety of cultures: Irish, German, French and English. There were several men who were mixed-race, half-white and half-Native American.

In his wonderful book, Into the Unknown: Leadership Lessons From Lewis and Clark's Daring Westward Expedition, author Jack Uldrich says, "It would be unrealistic to say that Lewis and Clark started their selection process with diversity as an end goal or even a deciding factor. As products of the late-eighteenth century, this was not how they thought. The lesson, however, is that by focusing on their end goal- reaching the Pacific- they were led, by necessity, to assemble a diverse team. As the famous architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, 'Form follows function.' And to conquer the unknown, that 'form' manifested itself as a diverse team."

Even Lewis and Clark themselves possessed complementary skills as co-commanders of the expedition. They were both seasoned soldiers, strong, and experienced in the ways of the wilderness. They were also both curious, ambitious, and excellent leaders. But Lewis was better educated, and a superb hunter and botanist. Clark was a talented boatman and cartographer. Lewis tended to be reserved, humorless, and even prone to bouts of depression, while Clark was warm and engaging, with an easy manner that made him popular with the men. Together they formed a formidable duo, arguably the most successful leadership team in American history.

Do you belong to a diverse business team? A team that is diverse not just in the obvious, visible sense, but that possesses diversity of skills, backgrounds, and experiences? Or does everyone on your team more or less think and act alike? With the increasing complexity of business missions in today's global economy, leaders who ignore the imperative to seek diversity in their approach will lose. As Lewis and Clark taught us so ably more than 200 years ago, diversity is an absolute necessity, because diversity is strength.

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