Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned on the river.

“Always volunteer to scrub the toilets, it’s the worst and easiest job.”


There are few jobs I truly hate in this life, painting and scrubbing toilets are at the top of the list.  I am very good at both.  I have been polishing porcelain honey buckets for most of my life. We’re not talking about weekly chores around the house. I’m talking about the last bastion of legal child labour, workin’ for the family. Back when dad was part owner of a regional theme park, I spent a summer in yellow Marigolds pushing a trolley loaded with supplies to all the public toilets…every day… for almost as much money as you could find in change at the bottom of some of the rides at the end of the year. Along with other terrible jobs I did for dad, he would always tell me “now you know what you don’t want to do with the rest of your life.” more on that in a later post.

Years later, as a first-year raft guide, being a rookie in the company meant we got just enough work to buy the essentials of life to stay alive: egg salad sandwiches and cold Bush beer.  And when you did get work, the time spent on the river was just a fraction of the tasks that needed to be done, handing out wetsuits, prepping snacks, taking the chicken out of the fridge and putting it in the same Mr. Yoshida’s sauce…every day, sorting wetsuits, building fires, cooking, dunking wetsuits, taking out the trash, sell t-shirts, drying wetsuits, paint the deck, sort the recyclables mow the lawn, on and on and on, these jobs got divvied out at the beginning of the day.  The last one to be volunteered for… Cleaning customer toilets. 

There are two types of raft trash, those that choose to do it full time, and the weekend warrior. The weekend warrior has a real job, they’ve been around for a while and they just show up to the party when it’s busy and there’s enough work to go around. One of the legends… Lee

Lee showed up from Boston from time to time. Lee was an avid kayaker, and what he may have lacked in kayaking mastery he more than made up for in chutzpah. Lee was one of my favourites…”Ok”. For Lee, guiding rafts was a necessary evil to help pay for the kayaking habit.

Somehow Lee was always done with work and back on the river before everyone else, and no one cared, because Lee always volunteered to clean the toilets. I took notice.

So I started to volunteer to clean the toilets every time I was picked to work for the day. I had been training for years.

            -It was the job everyone hated.

            “Everyone was thankful someone else had to do it.

            -River managers took notice.

             -It was the easiest job and took the least amount of time.

Sure, every once in a while you had that “special day,” where you weren’t sure how shhhh…tuff ended up where it did, but because those days existed, no one batted an eye that I was chillin’ in the sun sippin’ a frosty cold adult beverage, long before everyone else.  This even worked when farmed out to other companies, They were grateful and called you back,

After a few years of climbing the raft guide ladder, I found myself at the helm of the operation, doling out the tasks for the first-year minions. First you take volunteers and then you just start dispersing tasks like a Read-Option Quarterback on game day. I saved the toilets for myself.

I still volunteer to polish privy when I can, and all these years later have learned some valuable leadership lessons amidst the fumes of bleach and last night’s curry.

-Leaders have to be willing to know what the worst job feels like.

-Leaders who scrub toilets remain humble, and grounded.

-Way easier to ask others to do tasks when you are willing to do the worst one.

-People respect and follow leaders willing to muck in and do the tough stuff.

-Folk will do other terrible tasks knowing you haven’t assigned anything you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself.

– Those in leadership above you will notice.

Oh, I still hate cleaning another man’s throne, but I have been scrubbing toilets now for over 35 years. And in the delineation of tasks in my marriage, guess who scrubs the toilets…that’s me, already on the couch, with a cold one in hand. And no one’s complaining.

P.S.A. In case you are wondering, the women’s public toilets are by far THE WORST to clean! Please stop “hovering”, it’s not working!