"Which of these rivers was the Missouri?" That was the question Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal and discussed with William Clark in early June of 1805. Captains Lewis and Clark had been following President Jefferson's explicit orders for more than a year: "The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River." Now they were stumped because their expedition had arrived at a fork in the river. They measured the size of the two rivers, the characteristics of the water flowing in each, and explored the terrain into which each of the rivers flowed. Still they were unsure which fork was the Missouri. Faced with ambiguity, these leaders did what all great leaders do; they camped... and explored.
Lewis wrote in his journal once again, "Captain Clark and myself concluded to set out early the next morning with a small party each, and ascend these rivers until we could perfectly satisfy ourselves. It was agreed that I should ascend the right hand fork and he the left. We agreed to go up those rivers 1 1/2 days march or further if it should appear necessary to satisfy us more fully of the point in question." (1) The rest of the expedition camped.
Captain Clark was much relieved when Captain Lewis finally arrived back in camp, two days late. The captains discussed their incomplete findings, poured over their faulty maps, and finally agreed that the South Fork was the Missouri River.
The next morning, Lewis tried to convince the men of the expedition that the South Fork was in fact, the Missouri. They didn't buy it. Every one of these seasoned veterans was convinced that the North Fork was the way to go. Lewis listened to their arguments, but did not put the matter up for vote. The captains had made their decision and were sticking with it. It turns out to have been the correct decision.
This is a story about how leaders deal with ambiguity. What do you do in the face of ambiguity? Do you need to have all the facts before moving ahead? In today's complex, rapidly changing work environment, how often do you lack the data needed to be certain of your decisions?
According to the American Management Association’s survey of 1,573 global corporations, dealing with ambiguity is essential for leadership success. (2) That's because close to 90% of the issues leaders deal with are ambiguous -- the problem is often unclear and the solution vague. Leaders who are highly skilled in dealing with ambiguity effectively manage change, deal with uncertainty well, and can shift gears easily. One way they do this is by "camping" and then exploring the terrain. How are you developing your skills in these areas to help you deal with ambiguity?
1. Stephen Ambrose; Undaunted Courage, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, New York, 1996, page 231.
2. American Management Association Report, Leading into the Future, New York, New York, 2005.