Whitewater Wednesday: Leadership learned from the river.

“What the hella ya doin?” 

Pete Dostie, Owner, North American Whitewater

For eight years I guided whitewater rafts down some of the best whitewater rivers in the United States.  Few things go from fun to frightening or calm to chaos faster than a Class V whitewater trip. And if you worked for a rafting company, then you worked for a crazy person. My crazy person was Pete, and I loved him to bits.

From the first day of training to the last day as a seasoned guide, Pete hollered at me. “What the hella ya doin” in his East Haven Connecticut Accent.

Its meaning could be one of affectionate greeting or profound disappointment.  All depending on the tone, which sounded exactly the same.  However, on the river, it generally meant one of three things.

“What the hella ya doin” = Are your decisions and actions deliberate and with purpose?

Guiding whitewater, the difference between “best day ever” and “In the North Maine woods, all accidents are fatal” is the product of thousands of decisions made amid infinite factors, while sometimes clouded by bad decisions from the night before, all shooting for one outcome, “good times had by all.”   Every decision made had to have purpose and intentionality.  First-year guides tend work crews to death because they are constantly making small unnecessary decisions that take bigger necessary decisions to undo. The old geezers, processed the factors, knew when to make the right moves, and make them at the right time.  Least amount of effort for the maximum impact. This preserved the strength of the crew for when you needed it the most.

Effective leadership involves distilling the right information before making deliberate, purposeful decisions.

“What the hella ya doin” = Are you accountable?

Rookie guides love to blame the crew for a bad run, “couldn’t paddle”, “they’re too weak”, “too young”, “too old”, “too many”, “too heavy” or “they just wouldn’t listen.”  The experienced guides know the crew only goes where you guide them. True for work, churches, marriage and ministry, if there is a problem, it is always a leadership problem.  Any given ‘crew’ is right where the leadership led them. Blaming the crew discourages and costs valuable leadership equity. When things go bad, take extreme ownership of the situation. Humbly and appropriately communicate mistakes and then make better decisions. Likewise, when things are going well, focus the attention and praise back on the team. This will build trust and unity and a willingness to follow even when leaders make mistakes.

What the hella ya doin?” = What did you learn from the outcome?

Having all eight of your guests precariously perched on the tip of the only rock in the widest part of the river, while your raft is slowly being sucked under the surface and wrapped around the very rock to which you cling, the last thing you want to hear coming from the banks is “What the hella ya doin?”  A couple of hours later, back at the base it was followed with “let’s not do that again.” To not do it again is to know how you got there in the first place.  As leaders, we need to be keenly aware of what decisions, rightly or wrongly, that were made that led to mistakes we make, so as not to repeat them. As uncomfortable as outside feedback can be, it is imperative to allow respected voices to speak into our lives and point out our blind spots and help hone our leadership skills.  Feedback, good and bad, is invaluable to making us better leaders.

So amidst the biggest crisis the world has seen in two generations,

“What the hella ya doin?”

swallow a frog

“If you know you have to swallow a frog, swallow it first thing in the morning. If there are two frogs, swallow the big one first.” – Mark Twain

Prioritise the first, biggest or most important tasks in your day first.  Then, no matter what, you end the day feeling productive. 

In life, leadership, marriage, or ministry, we all have the things we are not as passionate about or we just downright don’t want to do. My natural inclination is to put it off.  However, some things have to get done.  Two things I hate, taking out the trash, and conflict, But my wife says it’s my job to take out the trash, and God says conflict is an opportunity to live out the gospel.  Putting these off leads to stress and anxiety and early death.   Swallow the big frogs first, save the passion till after lunch.