Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned on the river

“Do something, anything, even if it’s wrong” – Pete

For the most part, whitewater rafting is a relatively safe and exhilarating activity. After all you can’t drown instantly… right? However, when things do go wrong, they get worse fast. On the rare occasions when things didn’t go as planned, let’s say the river is running at flood stage, and you have a full boat of exciting guests and when they ask you how long you have been a professional guide, when you say “six more days makes a whole week”, you are not lying to them. Hypothetically…let’s say in the middle of the biggest rapid on the river the raft seems to explode after hitting a monster hydraulic and is now upside down with everyone bobbing up and down in class IV+ whitewater… hypothetically. Some raft guides could have a tendency to freeze, you might call it “analysis paralysis.”  After climbing onto an upside down raft, eyes wide open, and mouth slightly gaped, a rookie guide from Arkansas might seem to slide back down the evolutionary chart a few notches. Motionless atop the raft just staring at the bright blue helmets bobbing in and out of site like a chaotic game of “whack-a-mole”, the situation only getting worse. That’s when, in the back of your mind, you would hear the words shouted at you daily during training,

“Do something, anything, even if it’s wrong.”  

Now, this is not to say factors shouldn’t be calculated, or options weighed. This isn’t a mantra to simply look busy, franticly attempting a half hearted rescue. In a given circumstance it meant every second that went by the situation was getting worse. Inaction compounded the situation, increased the risk of catastrophic result.

To succeed as a quality guide, we quickly learned to process on the fly, take action, make adjustments, and change plans as needed.  That might mean saving yourself first. Wait isn’t that selfish? Well, there is a reason your airline safety briefing tells you to put your oxygen mask on first.  A raft, an aeroplane, a business, it does the guest, costumer, or employee no good if the leader is out of commision. Putting yourself in a better position enables you to help others rather than being part of the problem.

Often, the root of “analysis paralysis” is a fear. The Kennebec river at flood stage, choking on the freezing water, literally up the river without your paddle it is easy to recognise where the fear might come from, however in the rest of life it might be the fear of a wrong decision, fear it’s not what a peer would do, or fear of failure. On the river, failure to act could lead to someone getting hurt or worse. As leaders we should be able to assess, act, and adjust to the changing circumstances at appropriate time scales. Experiencing fear is normal, but good leaders are able to remain calm and level headed and move forward in the face of fear. And when we experience failure it doesn’t define us as leaders, but becomes an opportunity to learn, adjust, and get better. 

If like me 2020 has not gone to plan for you, now is time to act, embrace the fact things are not going back to the way they were, seize the opportunity, start moving forward, and making course corrections on the way. “Do something… anything… even if it’s wrong.”

As a leader what is your greatest fear?  Hint: It’s not spiders.

What is the first step to overcome?