Should you share leadership?

Any foray into the new is like a walk in the wilderness, often with a general idea of where you want to go, but without knowing how you’ll get there or what you’ll encounter along the way. Perhaps this is why I find the explorers of history to provide surprising insight into whatever I’m leading and wherever I’m going.

One such tension is how much leadership to share, and when to share it. Should I lead decisively from the front, or collaboratively beside others? Two of my favorite characters provide insight.

An Unflattering Introduction

Meriwether Lewis had a formidable drinking problem. One day while intoxicated he waltzed into his lieutenant’s house, insulted him, and challenged him to a duel. Dueling and “conduct unbecoming of a gentlemen” violated the Army code of conduct.

The Court Martial of Meriwether Lewis

Lewis was charged, pleaded not guilty, and was let go. Also a formidable marksman, he was transferred to the Chosen Rifle Company led by Captain William Clark.

Quite the introduction for America’s most famous duo. It gets better.

Years later, when Thomas Jefferson made Lewis the Captain of the Corps of Discovery, Lewis requested that Clark be appointed his co-leader. This required Clark to be recommissioned as Captain. It was the first, and only, co-led military unit in American history. He didn’t have to share the title, but chose to.

“Believe me there is no man on earth with whom I should feel equal pleasure in sharing them as with yourself.”

Lewis, in a letter inviting Clark to co-command the expedition

Lewis and Clark’s names are inseparable as any duo in history (I’ll be surprised if you can remember the second in command on voyages of Magellan, Marco Polo, or Columbus). Why did Lewis choose to share his title, and his place in history?

Sharing Leadership

Shared a title is a mess. Can’t you imagine the potential problems? What happens when you disagree (which they did)?

In the middle of wilderness totally unfamiliar to them, Lewis trusted Clark. Lewis must have known that the more unknown the terrain, the more competent leadership they needed. He may have thought: “We’re going to need more decisive leadership than I’ll have capacity to give.”

This shared trust was contagious. When the company all disagreed with them, they still followed the Captains cheerfully. When Lewis and Clark invited the company to vote, they included York (Clark’s slave) and Sacajawea, the first vote cast by a woman and Black American in history.

“They said very cheerfully that they were ready to follow us any where we thought proper to direct but that they still thought (they should go the other way)”

From the Journals of Lewis and Clark, remembering when the entire company disagreed with them

Sharing leadership requires deep trust, and real humility.

It means you often go slower.

You’ll carry a lighter burden, but less glory.

Sharing a title is rare. But I don’t think sharing leadership needs to be. You don’t have to share your office chair to share some of your authority, influence, and decision-making.

I think it starts by building trust with the people beside you, and embracing humility within you. 

One final thought: I wonder if it was easier for Lewis to trust Clark because he had seen him at his worst. Perhaps it’s worth considering bringing people into your limits, weaknesses, and insecurities. You may find out you can trust them.

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