Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned on the river.

A conversation overheard while stacking rafts.

Guide 1: “What do you think of the new guy?”

Ol’ Timer: “I don’t know, I’ve never seen him in trouble.”

For the first several years of guiding, I would head up to the Northeast after the University year ended. But come the end of August, I would have to pack up the Jeep and head back to Arkansas to start yet another year of my long college education.

Summer of 2000, the feeling…for the first time I didn’t have to go home… I was free!

I also didn’t have to stay in Maine. For the first time I got to take the pilgrimage to the whitewater mecca of North America. The Gauley River in West Virginia. Widely considered one of the top 5 rivers in the world, guides flood the region in hopes of picking up some work on the Upper Gauley during the short 6 week season in September and October.

This was my first journey and of course I followed my amigo Brendan to the craziest company on the river, Songer Whitewater. Days are early, long, and intense. The whitewater is epic, and the beer was cold on the bus after the trip and the first of several years did not disappoint.

Companies in the area raft other rivers during the summer months, and like elsewhere new guides come and train and earn their chops. Some make it, some don’t, some work hard and put in the work and others just seem to be naturals. I remember one such kid that was new to the company that year. It’s been 20 years now and I have long forgotten the names of these six week friends so we will just call him Jimmy.

I was helping stack rafts after a trip one day, I don’t think I even worked the trip but as we lived on site and you can only play so much frisbee golf, so you pitched in and helped out when it was needed. As we shifted and stacked heavy deflated rafts an intense discussion broke out about the importance of keeping the rafts turned facing the correct way on the trailer in order to insure good Karma from the ‘river gods’… this resulted in pulling deflated rafts off, turning, and re-stacking… Uhhh?

Coming from a company that prioritized “after-work” activities, and personally having zero patience with superstition when it involved the handling of flacid rafts, to this day this is still one of the most ridiculous arguments ever witnessed, but I digress. The conversation did turn to one of the young men that was there. One of the guides turned to an ol timer and asked his thoughts about Jimmy. Jimmy was a young, strong, West Virginian local who just seemed to have a knack for guiding rafts. He had some great trips and in his first year had already amassed some good stories and epic customer photos.

But after being asked how good the new kid was, the Ol timer paused and looked at the kid, he said, “I don’t know, I have never seen him in trouble.”

There seemed to be a long pause before I am sure someone broke the silence with a sharp quip. In that moment what we all knew deep down, no matter how good you are, your time is coming when something goes wrong. What makes the greats great is not their performance when things go well, when you win, when you make it look easy. The greats are set apart by how they handle adversity. When the back is against the wall. How they respond to failure. This is true for raft guides and is true for nearly every walk of life. The reality was the young man was good, but what was left to be seen was what he would do when everything seemed to crumble around him. It might take a while, but if you stayed in business long enough it happened to all of us.

Raft guide, firefighter, police officer, pastor, builder… It’s not just the success that makes us, but how you overcome opposition, bounce back from failure and learn from mistakes. It’s the difference between good and great.

Many can let failure, handicap, opposition or struggle become what defines them. The greats rise above, learn, adapt and overcome. They view failure not as a stumbling block but as an opportunity to get better, and go further. The greats seem to have an identity that is placed elsewhere, somewhere other than the day’s performance.

If you are still young enough to not have yet had your moment. Now is the time to prepare. Trouble is coming, it always does. How will you respond?

Us ol’ timers are waiting to see.