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Marketing Viewpoint by Ruth Winett

Blood and Thunder and Leadership Lessons

Ostensibly about Kit Carson, Blood and Thunder* by Hampton Sides is also about the role of John Fremont and other military leaders during the westward expansion of the US from 1846 to 1868. The book provides examples of both good and bad leadership while the US was pursuing what President James Polk called the US's "Manifest Destiny."

By 1846 Navajos had been marauding and stealing the sheep and horses and even women and children of white settlers and other Indian tribes for decades. Brevet Major General James Henry Carleton pledged to solve the problem by relocating thousands of Navajos and Mescalero Apaches scattered over hundreds of miles in the plains to Bosque Redondo or Round Forest in what is now Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Here he hoped to establish an agricultural community. While backed by the US government, this ill-conceived plan resulted in a leadership disaster. The lessons learned are relevant to leaders in both business and government.

Some of the factors Carleton failed to consider were:

  • Whether this was a viable location. In fact, the only river, the Pecos, was contaminated, and soldiers and Navajos alike were sickened by its water.
  • Whether the Navajos who were already sick and weak from hunger could withstand the long trek to this remote location. An estimated 200-300 people died during the long march.
  • Whether the people would thrive beyond their historic homeland. According to tradition, the Navajos were to stay within an area bounded by four sacred mountains.
  • If the nomadic Navajos would readily adapt to farming and a sedentary way of life.
  • If sufficient supplies would be available from the US government, which was preoccupied with the Civil War.
  • Whether the Navajos would know what to do with unfamiliar supplementary foods. The Navajos sickened from eating raw flour as no one told them how to use it.
  • How the US soldiers who managed the repatriation would fare in this challenging locale.
  • How this isolated new community would manage if a natural disaster occurred. Cutworms soon devoured their corn crop, their major source of food.

For years General Carleton had had the romantic notion of forming an idyllic community of Native Americans on the Bosque Redondo. He did not investigate whether establishing this community was desirable, feasible, or practical. In addition, Carleton was posted far away from the suffering Navajos. Instead, he delegated responsibility to Kit Carson, who soon left out of disgust. When problems developed, Carleton did not waiver or consider alternatives. Only too late did Carleton try to import sheep to help feed the starving Navajos. Ultimately 3,000 or one out of three Navajos died in Bosque Redondo as did many of the soldiers.

This historic example illustrates the importance of knowing your constituents or customers or citizens; finding out what they need and want; testing and re-testing your assumptions when developing a plan; continuing to test the assumptions during implementation; acknowledging mistakes; and then taking timely corrective actions. In Carleton’s case, his errors were life and death errors in judgment.

*"Blood and Thunder" books were dime novels about Kit Carson.

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Copyright © 10/20 Ruth Winett. All rights reserved.

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