What’s Your Iron Boat? November 23, 2009Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
Tags: Bad Ideas, Leadership, Listening
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?
(I’m on hiatus this Thanksgiving week. This is a repost of one of my favorite articles from 2008. For more on the spectacular trip of Lewis and Clark, look for Undaunted Courage on my Books page)
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