The essence of successful leadership is the ability to scout out the future and find the best path to reach it.
We can all recall the stories and vivid imagery of the early 19th century “wagon trains” that carried Americans looking for a brighter future into the great unknown of the American west. Those brave souls who gathered up their belongings and climbed aboard the Conestoga carriages had grand dreams for their futures, but there was also anxious uncertainty: no one in the wagon train had traveled in the uncharted territory of the unknown. They only knew they wanted to escape from hardscrabble lives in the East and “go West.” But they were as naive as newspaperman Horace Greeley as to what they would encounter or how to get there.
“Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”
–Horace Greeley, New York Tribune
To have any chance of getting where they wanted to go, wagon trains needed a “scout” to show the way. The responsibility of the scout – often portrayed as a buckskin clad, rifle-toting loner – was to be out ahead of the wagon train to gather information about the unknown road ahead.
Each morning the scout would set out alone, ahead of the wagon train. He would survey what was over the horizon and out of sight of the wagon train to determine how to overcome risks and find the best path to move forward. Each evening he would return to the wagon train to explain what he had seen, what they could expect to encounter and the best way to prevail over any obstacles that could threaten the wagon train’s goal.
Step by step along the journey the scout moved out ahead of the wagon train, never venturing too far ahead to lose touch, but far enough so that each day the wagon train knew what perils to expect and how to deal with them. Wagon trains that attempted the journey into the unknown of the west without the guidance of an experienced scout were doomed to failure.
When you think about it, for the contemporary organization that seeks to move forward into the unknown of the future, the leader becomes the modern-day scout. They are out ahead of the group, surveying the landscape and determining the best strategy to move forward. The leader is constantly coming back to the group to communicate what lies ahead and how best to overcome any obstacle. Organizations that attempt to move forward into the unknown without a leader who can scout out the future are similarly doomed to failure.
The challenge most often faced by wagon trains and being faced by many organizations today is that the need for experienced scouts and effective leaders exceeds the supply. It took a unique person to safely shepherd a wagon train to the west and it takes the same type of person to lead on organization into the future.
Many long to be leaders, but far too many fail to understand what it takes to be a leader; even fewer are willing to pay the price of leadership.
The leader must be willing to be alone, out ahead of the others to scout out the future and determine the best way to get there. The extent of the aloneness will define the level of leadership provided.
It is difficult for many to comprehend that if they are not out front and alone, they are not leading.
Being a wagon train scout was a lonely job and so is leadership, but it is the only way a successful outcome to any venture can be achieved. Unfortunately the price of leadership – being out ahead and alone – is a price that many are unwilling to pay. And that is somewhat surprising.
After all, everyone is supposed to want to be a leader. In reality, though, most would rather be followers than leaders. (Perhaps that’s one reason why leadership opportunities are so frequently available.) Many are more comfortable riding in the wagon as part of an organization than being responsible for it. The truth is that more are content to follow a path than to create one.
Fundamental to leadership is a willingness to step out, step ahead and to stand alone until others can be brought along. A scout to the future needs the confidence to be vulnerable, exposed to the risks, criticism and complaints of others and many are uncomfortable with that vulnerability. But, that is okay; there is nothing wrong with that. The real work to accomplish great things is done by those who follow rather than lead. Leaders and followers need each other in order for both to be successful. The scout to the future can be successful only when they give others a path to follow. Those driving the wagons will have no path to success if there is not a leader willing to accept the responsibility to show the way.
If the truth is told, many of those who profess to be leaders are uncomfortable in the lonely role of leadership and their actions confirm that. All too often, those in leadership positions are unable to understand or accept the responsibilities of being out ahead of others and fall into a defensive attitude of entitlement. Seeing the leadership position as an end, rather than a responsibility, they act as though power, respect and compliance are their due. In order for the followers to be willing to follow, the leader must be willing to scout out the future and postulate a clear, specific path, while convincing the followers that it leads to success for everyone.
This attitude of being unwilling to be out ahead of the group, to stand up and stand out is clearly evident in the dearth of real leadership in the political arena. We only have to look to the current quagmires in the Middle East and the Ukraine, to understand that few politicians are willing (or able) to be out ahead of the wagon train to offer and layout a clear course of action. As a result, actions are only reactions, not part of plan. We are told the objective is to rid the world of ISIS, but are not given the path to do so.
Rarely do we see an elected official who is willing to be out front alone, scouting the future. At least not until they have read, analyzed and digested the latest opinion poll. That is like a wagon train scout waiting until he gets the opinions of all those in the wagon train – who have not been down this path – before deciding which path to recommend. That is following, not leading. True leaders will drive opinion, not be driven by it.
And the Moral of the Story …
It is okay to be a follower—not a leader. Many achieve their greatest satisfaction and accomplishment by following the lead of others to accomplish great things. But if you do seek a leadership role – if you want to be a scout for the future – you must recognize and accept that with the role comes a responsibility to step up and step out.
Leading means risking the slings and arrows of criticism and complaint so the followers are free to achieve the vision the leader created. Unfortunately too many individuals seek leadership positions simply for the perceived comfort, power and perks of the office. In doing so, they become more follower than leader. It is great if you want to be the one to scout out the future and figure out the best way to get there, but you can’t do that riding in the security of the wagon with everyone else.