How Leadership can go Wrong

By | February 19, 2019

[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?

  1. Failure to fully assess the risks of any undertaking.
  2. Taking on new strategies without a better knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages.
  3. Inflexible, overly aggressive, or charismatic leadership.
  4. Ignoring information contrary to the desired outcome.
  5. Not having a backup plan or alternate strategy in case things go wrong.
  6. 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.




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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

21 thoughts on “How Leadership can go Wrong

  1. Eric Coda

    This article was a good way to start my week. I’ll be sharing this with my boss at work. Hehehehehe!

  2. Yusaf from Texas

    I’ve been to Middle East recently (specifically Iraq and Jordan) to visit those in my family who I know. I told them about this site and others that have great ideas about leadership. My advice to them … keep reading.

    1. Willie Shrumburger

      Good to have you back, Yusaf. Hope you’ve been well.

    2. Scotty Bush

      Great having you on board with us again. I hope your trip was satisfactory and your relatives are well.

  3. Max Foster

    In the news lately there has been some mention of the fact that people have what is known as “confirmation bias.” That is when they will only read and believe what they already have in their mind is the way. Liberal “moths” are especially drawn to the flame of bias by their constant looking down upon everyone else. This confirmation bias is insideous and should be avoided.

    1. Kenny Foster

      Yes, right on target with your comment. I think this is what Gen. Satterfield was getting at with his number 4.

    2. Lynn Pitts

      Yes, and ignore Gen. Satterfield’s comments at your own peril.
      🙂 🙂 🙂

  4. Danny Burkholder

    I heard about this tragedy in High School history class. We learned a few things but mostly about what equipment and wagons they had. Nothing in class about why the leadership failed in taking unnecessary risks. Well done!

    1. Mr. T.J. Asper

      Same here. Too much history is taught improperly in my opinion. The teachers were too focuses on memorizing dates and places and then ignored (or didn’t have time for) the important things. Like what were these people thinking and why did they make any given decision.

      1. Janna Faulkner

        Mr. Asper is a HS teacher. He would know. Thanks !!

    2. Dennis Mathes

      Thanks Danny. Well said. High Schools in the US have been declining for decades. They teach less about the three Rs and more PC stuff.

  5. Nick Lighthouse

    I liked your number two. Trying out new strategies without fully understanding the advantages and disadvantages is a common problem. Strategy here cold also mean any method or tactic that we use. Some don’t matter and thus are just simple tests. Others are important and must be carefully implemented. Looks like the Donner Party chose what they thought was a safer strategy; obviously not.

  6. Len Jakosky

    There’s an old saying that “If it can go wrong, it will.” I personally adhere to that philosophy and thus try to be prepared, just like my boy scout days taught me.

  7. Army Captain

    Yes, you are so right about this. Leadership can go wrong and that is why we take great care in doing due diligence to review RISKS and how to overcome them.

    1. Edward Kennedy III

      Good to see you are still here, Army Captain. Thanks for your regular comments.

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