Leadership Strategies for Constant Change in a World of Whitewater Rapids
Very early this year, I had a chance to get to the Rocky Mountains for some whitewater rafting. When my daughter was very young, we rafted on the Snake River, but that experience was nothing like the rapids we forged on the Arkansas river. For our Rocky Mountain trip, we decided to step it up and hit the Level 4. “Class IV Rapids” are described as “long, difficult rapids, narrow passages, turbulent water that requires precise maneuvering and sends hearts racing.”
We had our share of challenge, stress, and fright as we were tossed and thrown through the raft. Our guide barked out commands, our fellow passengers were thrown into the river and picked up by their life jacket to be returned to the raft, cold and dripping.
But we also experienced total elation and wonder at the beauty, the connection, and the calms of the eddies.
Each emotion we felt caught us by surprise; we were unable to predict how we’d feel until we were right there in it. All throughout our trip on the Arkansas, we never knew what would happen next.
Sound like anything we are all experiencing, especially our leaders, today? Let's talk about some strategies to lead through these whitewater rapids.
One of the activities we conduct in our leadership development programs is actually called White Water Rapids. Designed by self-described “Resident Mad Scientist” Thiagi, this activity is an excellent resource for “play with purpose”. Embedded in a robust workshop, this activity hits home as participants deal with constantly changing priorities, new strategies, reduced budgets, diversity impacts, and even a global challenge. I can see how it resonates in their behavior as they experience the disruptions to “normal”, experiencing many states of change: confusion, determination, action, paralysis, anger, joy, calm, exhaustion. These are just some of the emotions and reactions we see when we’re in “white water” in our work.
So, what’s the antidote to the white water rapids we experience in work? A lot of it is getting back to basics:
- Be clear about objectives. Before you get into the raft, you need to know where you plan to end up, even if the river wants to take you someplace else. Step back before moving forward or moving your team forward. What is the vision for the short term? What are the first steps we can take to get there?
- Decide on tasks. Everyone has a role on the raft, even though the role may change as the currents do. What does each team member need to know and how is the work divided? Be creative…people may be taking on different work than they have before and that’s okay. You’ll get a chance to discover some hidden talents.
- Organize the resources. Going down the river demands the right gear. Determine what resources you have and what’s missing. Collaborate with others – those on other “rafts” – and find out what they’re using. There’s new equipment out there all the time, so find what’s best to help you achieve your objectives.
- Take some time in the calm. While technically whirlpools, those eddys are just about the calmest place on a white water river. Eddys can be used as great safety tools to slow down in the middle of the river or completely stop. The same applies for us during these turbulent times. Take a moment for self-care. Take a moment to check that your team is well. Stop and listen in the calm. Sitting in the calm is where leaders can best collect their thoughts and support their team.
The rapids of the river are relentless. Without understanding what is needed to navigate through them–the preparation, the clarity around objectives, the importance of the team, and the time to refresh and renew–we may just end up in the river.
Where we want our leaders to be, and where their team needs them, is serving as leader: helping them to ride the rapids, moving forward, recognizing the obstacles of the path, achieving small goals. We may come out a little worse for the wear, but we will also be accomplished, knowing we’re taking on one of the biggest challenges we may have had to face as a leader.