I love the frontiersmen of the late 1700s and early 1800s – Men like Daniel Boone (1734-1820), Simon Kenton (1755-1836), Davy Crockett (1786-1836), and Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman (1774 – 1845), but when I think of the word “Pioneer,” the wagon trains on the Oregon Trail in the 1830s and 1840s come to my mind. I remember playing an early computer game called The Oregon Trail and I also remember how many times my character died in route. Just imagine yourself as a pioneer headed for Oregon with the hopeful promises of open plains and lush farmlands but with 2,000 miles of hard travel and danger ahead of you.
It wasn’t until 1836 that the first wagons were used on the trek from Missouri to Oregon. A missionary party headed by Marcus and Narcissa Whitman bravely set out to reach the Willamette Valley. The Whitmans were forced to abandon their wagons 200 miles short of Oregon, but they demonstrated that determined pioneers could go west by wheeled travel.
In the spring of 1843, a wagon train left Independence, Missouri, destined for Oregon. The train consisted of nearly 1,000 people and despite a mighty chorus of naysayers and doubters, the so-called “Great Migration” made it safely to Oregon. The train comprised more than 100 wagons with a herd of 5,000 oxen and cattle trailing behind. The vast majority of the pioneers on the trail survived and reached their destination, but some died from dangers like drowning in river crossings, the accidental falling off mules or horses, and contracting diseases like cholera, dysentery, measles, mumps, and typhoid fever.
The mindset and the bravery of the Pioneer reminds me of the characteristics of an effective leader. In this metaphor, let me fill six wagons with comparisons.
The first wagon is filled with the Spirit of Adventure. The pioneer leader needs to embrace the thrill of adventure and must be willing to enter into places of the unknown. Much of leadership is walking new paths and blazing new trails. Adversity awaits but the effective leader realizes that there is no adventure without adversity. When adversity comes the effective leader embraces that adversity and makes the most of the challenge. The leader, like the Pioneer, must move with caution and care, but must be willing to run into the unknown with purpose and vision.
The second wagon is packed with Calculated Risks. The Pioneers put everything they owned, placed all their dreams for the future, and loaded their children into a covered wagon. Then they left the security of an established town for the promise of a new land and a new start. Organizational leaders are often faced with risk. Financial risks, new program risks, relationship risks, delegation risks, failure risks, etc. Leadership decisions not always based on the knowns – they are sometimes reached on the thin ice of the unknowns involving risks of personal income, a comfortable environment, a solid place of security, and an established professional reputation. Leaders take risks on the hiring and promoting personnel, advertising and outreach, new products or services, and the challenges of new ideas. Please note: the 1843 Pioneers were careful and strategic in their risk taking – they followed an established pathway and the wagon train involved 1,000 people (safety in numbers). They did not travel with total abandonment or with a haphazard mindset. Pioneer-minded leaders take risks, but they do so with as much preparation and understanding as possible.
The third wagon is jammed with a Vision for a better future. Pioneer-minded leaders see tomorrow, next week, next year, and five years down the road differently than most folks. They have big dreams that fill the horizon. They experience a calling that pulls them with excitement and urgency. They can see the adventure of the future and they are driven by a deep desire to be part of it. These leaders are not just okay with the potential change of the future, they are energized by it, they are all in, they have their wagon packed and ready to hit the road.
The fourth wagon is loaded with Determination. The Pioneers understood the challenges of the trail and yet they were dedicated to reach the destination. They knew that the journey was going to take months and yet they had the tenacity to persevere the daily adversities in order to see the promises ahead. The path held 2,000 miles of rugged terrain and dangerous territory but their determination kept their eyes on the prize and feet moving forward.
The fifth wagon bulges with Confidence. One of my favorite reality series is The History Channel’s Alone. Ten individuals are dropped off by a helicopter in some isolated place (like Patagonia) with the goal of surviving in the wilderness. They have no food and no shelter. They are allowed to choose a limited number of items to bring with them (axe, saw, fire starter, tarp, etc), but the list is extremely small. What amazes me is the confidence that every participant expresses. They all begin the season with the resolve of spending an entire year in the wilderness. That is the pioneer spirit: the spirit not only to survive but to thrive. The leader with a pioneer mindset has the confidence and motivation to move forward. There is no turning back, the only choice is to accomplish the mission, the only option is to follow the vision.
The sixth wagon in the train overflows with Flexibility. Just like the Pioneers that headed west, the leader must learn how to bend but not break. The wagon train was faced with mountains, rivers, drought, dust, and storms and they needed to dig deep into their creativity of problem solving. Giving up was not on the table – they needed to move forward. Today’s leader needs to learn how to become elastic and not get bent out of shape; how to adapt to every situation without losing the message; how to change the packaging without compromising the quality and integrity of the ministry. If things change, be flexible; if things break, be adaptable.
Today’s leader is very much like a Pioneer. Hook up your wagons and join the adventure.
Photo: Pioneers – Kids Discover