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What’s Your Iron Boat? December 8, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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In planning for his great trek across the United States, Meriwether Lewis had a brilliant idea: a portable boat, made from a collapsible iron frame and covered in animal skins.  After leaving the Mississippi, his group would carry this boat until they reached the river rumored to extend to the Pacific, whereupon they would assemble the boat and sail away.  It was cutting edge technology for 1803 and Lewis absolutely loved the whole idea.

You can imagine what his men thought of it.  The boat frame was cast iron and weighed 176 pounds.  Fully assembled, it would be 42 feet long and could carry 8,000 pounds of men and equipment.  If you were one of the men assigned to lug the boat halfway across the United States, I’m guessing that you were not so enthused over the boss’ pet project.  You can almost hear the muttering and cursing as 176 pounds of iron were loaded up each morning and carried all day, day after day, across the continent.

Finally, the time came to assemble the boat.  Lewis had envisioned covering the boat in animal skins, sealing any holes with pine tar.  There were just two problems: they didn’t have enough animal skins, and there were no trees in the spot where they were building the boat.

For almost three weeks, from June 21 to July 9, 1805, Lewis directed his men to hunt elk and skin them.  It took a lot of elk to cover a 42-foot boat.  Every day, instead of heading west in the perfect weather of early summer, the men stayed in one place, shooting and skinning elk.  Lewis supervised, trying to figure out how to seal the boat without any tar.  Again, imagine the griping, growing each day, as the skins piled up and the boat slowly took form.

Finally it was time to put the boat in the water.  Within minutes, it sank.  Years of planning, months of dragging it across the country, weeks wasted for the skins, and the whole thing was over in an hour.  Lewis was embarrassed, certainly, and his men were vindicated.  Can’t you see them all at the river’s edge, biting their tongues and rolling their eyes, afraid to look at each other for fear of laughing at the boss?  I’ll bet no one could even say “boat” for the next week, without a lot of snickering from the back of crowd.

What is your iron boat?  What idea has captivated you, in spite of what your people are trying to tell you?  What bit of technology are you totally enamored of, regardless of its utter uselessness in the real world?  What piece of your plan made complete sense two years ago, but is now on the verge of sinking because you just won’t let it go?

Every leader has an iron boat, strapped to the backs of his or her team.  None of us can see the boat, but our people certainly can.  Are you listening for their feedback?  Do you trust them when they complain about your boat?  Are you humble enough to see your boat and let it go?

(For more on the spectacular trip of Lewis and Clark,
look for Undaunted Courage on my Books page)


1. Marc Sirkin - December 15, 2008

I am hoping that my iron boat is not social media 🙂

2. Aaron - January 4, 2009

16 years ago I worked for an HMO in an advanced technology team that was convinced that neural logic could identify patterns of health care claims fraud. I was sent to Pittsburgh to be trained on the latest tools and bring them back to build a prototype. Weeks later, it was time to test what I’d programmed. Well… it takes examples of good claims and bad claims to teach a neural program what it needs to spot likely fraud candidates. Here’s where I bumped up against the corporate iron boat… none of the department managers wanted to divulge how they’d been burned by fraud. They would drag their feet and never give up the data that was necessary to train the program. There was no way corporate management could promise immunity to those who would be willing to cough up a few embarrassing examples. Of course, no other HMO made their data public either. Bureaucrats tend to circle the wagons when the auditors arrive.

The upside of my trip to Pittsburgh in 1994 was my seeing the web in its infancy (still all gray background, no images, no columns) and I saw the future of the HMO’s other iron boat… its fleet of touch-screen kiosks that would have taken an army to maintain across California now being replaced by people getting that information online.

I know he’s not real popular in Georgia, but if you read the chapter on General William Tecumseh Sherman in Victor Davis Hanson’s The Soul of Battle, Sherman mastered taking all his prior mistakes in numerous previous positions and became a dominant commander.

Or as General Patton remarked: “I don’t measure a man’s success by how high he climbs, but how high he bounces when he hits bottom.”

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