Along the way, I have designed and run some leadership development programs in alliance with Outward Bound. Our programs have mostly run for 15 days, and include a week’s physical and metaphorical journey “into the unknown”. It’s a great setting for building your self-awareness as a leader – of others, and of yourself.
The first time I accompanied a group of senior managers for three days, part of their journey was rafting down the Snowy River. It was a wonderful adventure. The Snowy Gorge is especially exciting for its many rapids and sheer 200 metre-high cliffs.
At the first rapids, we scouted out where the best shute was – the place you want to be, where the water accelerates between the rocks, and carries you down to the next level, where you usually have to quickly turn to line up for the next shute. For sure, what you don’t want is to be stranded on the rocks and find yourself at the mercy of the current. Later that day, we misjudged a rapid, and the current took hold of us – each in turn spilled into the current, and I was taken along the bottom of the river for 30 metres!
As we eased our way into the first shute, and congratulated ouselves on our manoeuvering, our instructor, James, suddenly yelled “Paddle! Now! Hard!”
We did as we were told and paddled furiously, accelerating through the shute, before we veered sharp right to line up for the next drop.
As we spluttered joyously on into the next reach, exilharated and cheering, James stilled us. “You know why we had to paddle so hard just when the current was carrying us at our fastest?” We didn’t. “It’s because, no matter how fast the current, you have to be going faster still, if you want to have any say in where you go next.”
He was right, of course.
It’s an important principle for work, for business, and for life, I think.
Just now, our world is full of powerful currents, often unexpected, even invisible until we suddenly notice we are being swept along. We are buffeted by the backwash. And there are lots of rocks, some visible, many more hidden. No-one knows any more what’s around the next bend. Sometimes, not always, we can hear the next rapids before we can see them.
In corporate life, we usually travel in rafts rather than one-person kayaks. If we are going to go faster than the current, everyone has to paddle their hardest, talk to each other about what’s ahead, keep an ear out.
And when I emerged from the bottom of the Snowy, through the swirling water and bubbles, gasping wretchedly for air, James was waiting a little way ahead, standing in the river to his waist … and as I surfaced, he reached out for me floating by, and cradled me in the water until my breathing steadied.
We can create and sustain teams like this – we can do it with people skills and attention to each other, by sharing and building stories, by knowing what’s important to us and why, and by learning how to face the tough conversations and challenges with each other. This is one of our prime responsibilities at work; without it, we are lost – and lost to each other.
About David Green
David has been developing leaders for over 30 years and a good chunk of that time he has used narrative techniques. He specialises in running leadership programs that concentrate on team dynamics, building trust and learning how to say what you mean.
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