On Leading Pioneers versus Settlers

pioneersKeeping a team motivated when they’re doing a traditional role is easy, because you have all the traditional tools of leadership at your disposal. But what if you’ve asked a team to do a job that isn’t normal? A job without the typical and recognizable rewards—that atypical “special assignment” off the standard career path? The uncertainty and lack of a common experience make it difficult to get people to take those jobs, and harder to get them to stay. If that’s your situation, you need the following story.

Delaine’s challenge

Around the year 2000, Delaine Hampton was in charge of a team of consumer researchers at Procter & Gamble tasked with developing a new method to predict sales of new consumer products. As they got started, Delaine knew it would be hard to keep her team motivated. Developing an entirely new research method takes a long time, and the required secrecy means the work is lonely. Plus she knew their results wouldn’t feel as tangible as getting to work on actual product launches and seeing real results in the market.

So every six months, Delaine took her team aside and celebrated milestones along the way. At those celebrations, she often shared stories and used analogies. The one the group liked hearing the most was this one.

Pioneers and Settlers

When the central and western United States was being settled in the 1800s, there were two kinds of people brave enough to leave the comfort of the eastern seaboard: pioneers and settlers. Pioneers were the first ones out to the new territory. The terrain was uncertain, and danger could be found lurking behind any tree. Their job was to find the next inhabitable space, with workable land for farming, access to water, and timber for making shelter. They were skilled at crossing unbridged rivers and trailblazing through thick forests. Their most important assets were courage and the ability to fend off a hungry wolf.

After they established a new post, it was time for the settlers to come in. Instead of horseback, settlers arrived in covered wagons—luxury transportation at the time. Their job was surveying the land, expanding on the crude buildings put up by the pioneers, and establishing trade with merchants back East. Their skills were more refined than the pioneers’. They were craftsmen, blacksmiths, farmers, and bankers.

Once the settlers arrive, life for a pioneer changes. Their skills are in less demand. They feel crowded in the streets. Their days are slow and lack challenge. Eventually, it’s time for them to move on. They’ll be happier under the stars anyway, charting out the location of the next frontier town, and creating a legacy for other men and women to follow.

You,” Delaine would tell her team in her most earnest voice, “are pioneers. Nobody has been where you’re going. So it’s your job to go there and leave a trail. It’s everyone else’s job to follow.

The lesson

It’s almost impossible to hear that story and not feel the pride of a pioneer, no matter how many times you hear it. At some point in their careers, most businesspeople find themselves in the position to lead a team with a similar mission as Delaine’s—create something new or try something that’s never been tried before. When you do, keep this story handy. You’ll need it.

[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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