We just got back from our annual trek to Colorado. For me, the time we spend there each year is an important opportunity to unplug from my responsibilities at work. I love the mountains and being there helps me recharge so I can come back refreshed. As leaders, it is vital that we take time to completely disconnect from our roles for long enough to fully relax.
While we were there, we went white water rafting on the Arkansas river. At 1,469 miles, the Arkansas River is the sixth-longest river in the United States, the second-longest tributary in the Mississippi–Missouri system, and the 45th longest river in the world. I always wondered why a river in Colorado was named the Arkansas, so I looked it up. It was at the mouth of the river where it joins the Mississippi (in present day Arkansas) that Father Jacques Marquette called the river Akansa in his journal in 1673. However, its headwaters are near Leadville, CO, not far from where we were.
Spring runoff from the snow pack in the mountains swells the river and increases the flow rate significantly. We signed up to run a series of Class 4 rapids called The Numbers, but by the day of our trip, the water level was above the mandatory cutoff for commercial rafting. Our guide took us to The Narrows instead, a section of Class 3 and 4 rapids. We had a great time. There were a lot of big waves and holes and we got wet.
Our guide, Meghan, was fantastic. She was calm and laid-back, but also very much in charge. We got outfitted before leaving for the put-in point. Everyone got a wetsuit, neoprene shoes, and a splash jacket over which we were fitted with a PFD (personal floatation device.) After giving us fun but specific instructions about how to paddle, what her commands would be, and what to do if someone fell out of the boat, she got us into the boat and into the water. We practiced responding to her commands and performing the various strokes we would use and then she guided the raft into the current and we were off.
We almost immediately were in a Class 4 rapid and started paddling when commanded and taking in the power and beauty of the river. For the next 2+ hours we followed Meghan’s commands and were rewarded with amazing drops and waves and slots that were all hit just right to navigate safely yet excitingly through the swollen and raging river.
Even though I was captivated by the river and the surrounding landscape and somewhat preoccupied with paddling and not falling out of the boat, I was struck by the example of leadership I saw in Meghan. There were a number of key things that made our trip a complete success and Meghan was responsible for many of them.
Meghan had a calm confidence that helped even our most intrepid team members relax a little. Confidence is not rash or incautious. Meghan gave us clear instructions about the dangers of the river. She didn’t ignore the danger, but she didn’t fear it either, and that helped us not be afraid. Leaders need to be confident. This doesn’t mean we are never wrong, but it does mean that we have the experience and information to allow us to be reasonably certain about our path. Leaders are also confident in their team. Meghan continually told us we could do this.
Meghan (and River Runners) prepared us for reaching our goal (getting down the river IN the boat.) We were given the resources and information necessary to accomplish the task. Meghan didn’t expect us to understand the river like she does, but she told us enough about it to help us with the decisions we would be making. Also, in a way, Meghan had been preparing for our trip for years. She has thousands of hours of guiding under her belt (and she is on the US Olympic team.) Leaders must prepare themselves and their teams for success. This includes giving team members the right resources, the right training and the right guidance, but also requires a lot of preparation for the leader.
Meghan needed us to get down the river and we needed her. We each had specific roles to fulfill. A raft is hard to steer if it is just floating along with the water. To steer, the boat needs to move faster than the surrounding water. By following Meghan’s commands, we were able to paddle at the right time to give the boat the necessary speed for Meghan to steer. Drifting along isn’t leadership, but the leader can’t get to speed without the team and the team can’t steer without the leader. Meghan was also an excellent encourager. She didn’t tell us how great she was, rather, after every place where we had to paddle hard and listen closely, she would tell us we did a great job. She learned our names and used them. She listened more than she talked. She was easy going, but serious about her commands and our paddling. These are all traits of a great team leader.
Meghan is a fantastic guide. I have been on several trips with several different guides. They were all good, but Meghan was outstanding. We were in a difficult section of the river, in high fast water. I’ve been there before, and we had to paddle constantly to give the boat speed so the guide could continuously correct and try to get us into the right line. With Meghan, we didn’t paddle nearly as much. Her talent in reading the river and guiding the boat put us in the right line most of the time with less effort on our part. When Meghan did call on us to paddle hard, we were able and eager to respond. This is hard to notice unless you’ve experienced less talented leadership. A great leader does the difficult and often unrecognized work of making the effort the team exerts highly useful and meaningful. No team wants to work harder to make up for poor leadership, and no team will work harder than one who is following a leader who values their effort and treats it (and the team) with respect.
In today’s rapidly changing and turbulent environment, no organization can afford to just drift along with the prevailing current. It is leadership’s responsibility to steer us away from the rocks that would capsize and sink us. To do this, it is essential that our teams are equipped and prepared. We must acknowledge that everyone on the team is valuable and needed. We need confident and talented leaders to maximize the effectiveness of their team’s efforts. We are blessed to be surrounded by a community that embraces these ideas and strives to make them real every day. Sometimes you have to drive 750 miles and get into a rubber raft in a swollen and raging river to realize what has been around you all the time—confident, talented and prepared leaders and the Kimray Way.