[February 19, 2019] Soon after the turn of the 20th Century, my paternal grandmother traveled across the U.S. riding in a covered wagon. As a kid, she told me stories that perked my interest in the Conestoga wagon and the hearty folks that used them to begin a new life out West. But it scared the wits out of me when she told the legend of the Donner party and how leadership can go wrong.
The United States, in the 1840s and 1850s, experienced a great westward movement of people seeking their fortune in gold and land on which to build. Go West, young man, was a phrase used at the time to encourage people to stake their livelihoods out in western settlements. Opportunity and adventure awaited anyone willing to make the trip.
In 1846, 89 people set out in a wagon train from Springfield, Illinois to do just that. Their leader, George Donner, was selected for his toughness and wilderness smarts. The party set out in mid-July headed for a shortcut through an area known as the “Hastings Cutoff.” But the shortcut was nothing of the sort, and it set their travel timing back several weeks.
By October they were in the Nevada Mountains but decided anyway to continue their journey. An early snowstorm blocked the mountain pass and trapping the Donner Party. The harsh weather and lack of supplies killed several and forced the others to resort to cannibalism. This is an oft-studied expedition on what can go wrong if shortcuts are taken and care is not used to avoid major risks.
How can leadership go wrong?
- Failure to fully assess the risks of any undertaking.
- Taking on new strategies without a better knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages.
- Inflexible, overly aggressive, or charismatic leadership.
- Ignoring information contrary to the desired outcome.
- Not having a backup plan or alternate strategy in case things go wrong.
- Lack of relevant leader and group experiences.
On this date February 19, 1847, the first rescuers reached surviving members of the Donner Party.1 They found the Donner camp completely snowbound and the surviving members delirious with relief at the arrival of the rescuers. The last survivors didn’t reach safety until late April. Of the original 89 members of the Donner Party, only 45 reached California.