Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned on the river.

“I prefer to learn the hard way.”


I rarely learn from other people’s mistakes, and as a leader learning from mistakes is key to education and leadership development. One leadership lesson all good leaders must learn is knowing when to make the correct decision, even when it’s not a popular decision.

I am not sure of the statute of limitations on offences committed in the state of Maine so all the names of this theoretical example have been changed to protect…..everyone.

Fireworks are illegal in the State of Maine.

The State of Maine is unmatched in beauty and wilderness. Nearly 80% of the land is owned by the State or logging companies, so there is little development and much of the state is covered in lush dense forests. To protect the land and wildlife from what would otherwise be devastating fires, understandably Maine has outlawed the use of a great bastion of celebration, fireworks. At least that was the case in the mid 90’s.

So when one of our weekend warrior guides, whom we will simply call “Gary”, drives up from out of state on the 4th of July weekend and arrives with a trunk full of firework contraband, the correct decision would be to inform “Gary” of the dangers and legality of setting off fireworks in the State of Maine and instruct him to leave them in the trunk of the car. This would not have been the popular decision, but it was the correct decision. Mistake #1.

So as we “a group of guides” headed down to the chosen secret spot, the last left just before the The Forks bridge, down to the end of the ballfield and the last camp spot amongst the trees along the river. Chosen cause the leafy trees provided adequate cover from pesky park rangers and game wardens, while the banks of the river at low flow was the perfect spot to allegedly launch a few modest fire balls into the night sky. Just before heading to this unknowable location, an idea was floated to the van full excited participants. Because safety is always a priority for Registered Maine Guides, in July proper hydration should be maintained, So I suggested a cooler we’ll refer to as “Barndance” to protect the brand name, should be filled with Sport Drinks and bottled water. However, there was a strong group of dissenters, led by of course “Gary”, “David”, “Jeffery” and probably a trouble maker we will refer to as “Christopher.” They felt that “Barndance” should be filled with an inexpensive fermented drink known in some cultures as cerveza or birra. The correct decision would be to inform this unruly mob that, although it was quite chilly out and pouring with rain, a beverage of that nature would not quench the insatiable thirst that setting off fireworks conjures. This would not have been a popular decision but it would have been the correct decision. Mistake #2.

Out voted, your truly, was told to pick up a few bags of ice to keep the macro brews cold. As predicted, these wee 12oz beverages couldn’t keep up with the water loss that shivering in the freezing rain while swatting black flies and no-see-ums induced. So as “barndance” quickly began to run dry, the evening’s fireworks of bottle rockets and black cats crescendoed and the biggest set were saved for last. Interestingly, “Gary” didn’t want to have any part of the grand finale, possibly due to plausible deniability, but more likely due to his humble disposition and not wanting to draw attention to himself for a light show that was about to be seen by the entire community…. probably.

So allegedly myself and someone else, whom I cannot remember for reasons that will become apparent, were voluntold to light the large mortar boxes that had been saved for last. With the fuses adequately frayed and placement perfect, my accomplices and I approached with cheap Bic lighters in hand. “OK, On three…”

Timing, synchronicity, and a steely resolve are elements required to pull off a finale that adequately honors America’s freedom and independence. ….two…three…just as we were set to release the fiery Bald Eagles, disaster struck, a malfunction. Sure it was raining, sure the fuse on my box of mortars was racing to its thunderous termination. But there were literally 10’s of people counting on us. Coward might be too strong a word, but when my accomplice’s fuse didn’t light he dashed for cover. Was that the correct decision?

Leaders often fall into the trap of trying to please the crowd, rather than making correct decisions based on current information, and is overall better for the people whom you lead but also takes into account the safety of the leader him or herself.

In that moment a decision was needed: retreat to safety or stay and finish the job so many Americans and possibly a French-Canadian were counting on. The split second decision was made, I stayed…

With the liquidized courage of the Red, White, and Blue coursing through my veins, as if in slow motion, the sparks flew from the 25¢ lighter piercing the cold, wet, dark of night. Stretching and leaning over an eminent 21 canon salute, the flame but kissing the tip of the fuse on the second box…. Then, just as in the beginning of time, there was a tremendous light…

As the Chinese-made American tribute left the first tube destined for a patriotic report of awe and wonder, it was met with inpenratabla resistance. To this day what followed is fuzzy and unclear. The air was filled with the smell of America; sulfur, charcoal, potassium nitrate, and burning hair. As the sound of freedom bounced off the valley walls, for a brief moment I wondered if my sight would ever return. Around me were triumphant cheers of glory and success but at what cost. I seemed to no longer have eyebrows and was supporting a new fringe I didn’t start the evening with. As witnessed by spectators, the first mortar launched with violent velocity at what appeared to be a worrying ninety degree angle after ricocheting off the face of a sacrificial lamb.

As sight slowly returned and I began to realise that my eyes were indeed still on the inside of my head and the ringing in my ears started to subside, I began to register the roar of the apathetic applause. It was in that moment that a life long valuable leadership lesson was learned.

Bones heal, chicks dig scars, pain is temporary, but glory is forever.