For Those About to Lead

For those about to lead, I salute you. 

The vast majority of people go with the flow. Many people—even those whom we often dub “leaders”—fulfill their roles by finding out what others expect of them and meeting those expectations. This includes many heads of state—current, former and aspiring—military generals and admirals, university presidents and chief executives. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with going with the flow, depending on where the flow is headed. 

There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing what’s expected, depending on the nature of those expectations. 

But leadership is something different. 

Leadership is about exploration, adaptation, guiding others through uncharted waters. It’s about sensing and responding quickly to the forces of change; it’s about agility. 

Consider an example from May 1804.

As the keelboat turned her bow into the stream, Lewis and his party cut themselves off from civilization. There would be no more incoming letters, no orders, no commissions, no fresh supplies, no reinforcements, nothing reaching them, until they returned.
The captains expected to be gone two years, maybe more. In all that time in whatever lay ahead of them, whatever decisions had to be made, they would receive no guidance from their superiors. This was an independent command, such as the U.S. Army had not previously seen and never would again. Lewis and Clark were as free as Columbus, Magellan, or Cook to make their mark on the sole basis of their judgments and abilities.

Such is the description of the first moments of the famous expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who, upon the orders of no one other than the third President of the United States Thomas Jefferson, embarked upon one of history’s greatest expeditions—as documented by Stephen Ambrose in his 1996 bestselling book Undaunted Courage (p. 139).   

Lewis and Clark, in their journey across the North American continent in the early 1800s, truly didn’t know what to expect. Consider that President Thomas Jefferson himself, for example, believed that the expedition might encounter mastodons upon the prairie (Ambrose, 1996, p. 91).

These two leaders and their team had only themselves, their supplies and educated guesses about what they might face. The rest they would have to deal with in real time, in an environment of complete self-reliance. 

When we truly lead, we are taking risks; we are being vulnerable—to judgment, to criticism, to both passive and active rebellion, and to failure. 

It’s simply easier and safer to do nothing. But the solution to most of what ails our organizations and our society often boils to doing things differently. And as such, the answer always requires leaders and leadership. 

And so, regardless of whether you’re setting out with an expedition party exploring a new geography or charting a new course for your team, department or organization, I salute you for giving it a shot. 

Go boldly—either out in front or by following someone else who’s doing something worthwhile—and chart new waters. 

And never forget that going boldly doesn’t have to be big or even public. Small positive disruptions, repeated over time, can indeed yield radical change.  

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: