White Water Rafting Leadership Musings

Playmobil sailor figureIt’s cliché, but true: Having all oars in the water at the same time makes for a smoother ride.

And, so it was during our white water rafting adventure down the Black River in New York while on vacation recently. Eight family members in our bright yellow raft and our guide, Jasper, straight out of central casting.

Upon arrival, we were stuffed into life jackets secured so tightly that we looked (and felt!) every bit the Playmobil characters that can only bend at a 90-degree angle. Next, another guide delivered a compelling safety presentation. He got our attention by dipping his long locks into the cold water several times, exclaiming, “Nothing better for a hangover, folks!” (cue nervous laughter).

He barked out instructions (the new vocabulary became second nature eventually), like:

  • “River right” – Where you should aim your body if you fall out
  • “High side” – Meaning move to the downstream side of the raft, to avoid crashing into rocks or capsizing
  • “Hit the deck” – Or get low and to the center of the boat (and pray for the best, apparently)

And, as you might expect, after time to reflect on our experience, I note three key leadership observations that contributed to our success.

1.  Preparation and clear communication is key
Getting a team aligned is not a passive task. It requires you to envision your goals and to ensure everyone understands where you’re going and what’s expected of them. Ultimately, it requires a plan to ArthurAsheQuoteCallOutset each team member up for success. It requires active participation to cull out differences (“lefties” row differently, for instance), and to address questions and concerns.

Without our guide articulating clear expectations, training us and insisting that we practice, surely, we’d have been up creek without a paddle, as it were.

2.  Leading from behind has its merits
Jasper sat in the back of the boat and served as a rudder to steer and guide us. He had a unique view of everything in front of us as well as everyone in the boat. Most of us were very focused on ourLaoTsuQuoteCallOut own side of the boat and ensuring our oars were dipping in tandem with the person in front of us.

It was clear who was in charge and we “followed” willingly — not just because he was the expert. He created the conditions that enabled us to be successful (including telling my sister and me to stop expressing ourselves quite so much). He exuded confidence and we trusted he would get us through the rapids unscathed.

3.  Growth happens outside the boundaries of our comfort zone.
Stretching beyond our comfort zone is exhilarating and invites new perspective. We came to the rafting experience with various degrees of anxiety and excitement, and some with prior experience.

Focusing on something other than our normal day-to-day (usually indoor) routines and NealeWalscheQuoteCallOut1“to do” lists forced us to call upon various skills (like listening intently, following directions and not being in charge). Not to mention to count on each other in new and rather life-altering ways.

By the fourth or fifth rapid, we knew what to expect and our technique improved. There was more laughing and less terror, in other words.

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