Leadership from the Back of the Raft

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In my life as a Business Consultant and Advisor, I’m always on the lookout for examples of management styles that strike me as exceptional. This article relates one of those experiences.

Recently, our staff toured our Idaho client’s farms, with the expressed purpose of meeting the people and understanding their respective businesses. One of the activities that we did for fun was to sign up for a whitewater raft trip on the Snake River, downriver from Jackson Hole, WY. Herein lies by case study, superb leadership and management by our raft guide. This trip can be likened to the leadership and management skills required to successfully lead/manage the typical family business.

Our guide, a young man with a college degree in sociology or something similar, had an exceptional grasp of the leadership skills required to take a group of people from various backgrounds, differing water skills, mixed motivations and personalities and lead them down a dangerous stretch of river where people can, and do, drown. The guide, we will call him Chris, lead us from the back of the raft.

The first parallel to managing the family business was that he couldn’t choose who was in his raft. He had to take the groups assigned to him. In our raft we had two distinct groups of people, a business team and a family on a weekend vacation. Liken that to many family businesses where the members are made up of various family units with blood members and members by way of marriage or other relationship. Seldom does the leadership team have much choice about who is in the raft.

The first thing Chris did, was to get his crew off to the side and introduce himself, and assure us that the trip was going to be fun if we all did our jobs as instructed. He also informed us that if we didn’t function as a team that things could get dicey and the trip would be much more stressful and dangerous than need be. Typical of the family business, if the leadership team can function effectively, everyone will have more fun and ultimately be more successful. Additionally, we had a leader that was willing to take the leadership role and assume control and responsibility for the group. He also instructed us on how to don the life jackets and ensure that we have correctly adjusted them to our bodies. Additional equipment was distributed and a short course on how to use the paddles, how to sit in the rafts and initial safety rules. He then asked for questions to ensure that all of us had a basic understanding of rules and equipment.

We then received our seat assignments in the raft to balance the raft for weight, skill level and strength. Chris spent time interviewing each person to gain understanding of the competency and experience levels. He continuously maintained a professional, upbeat attitude that kept expectations high and morale soaring. We pushed off into a relative smooth stretch of river to begin to practice our skills, develop teamwork and get used to Chris’s commands and leadership style. From the back of the raft, Chris began to put us through the drill of responding to various commands and encouragement. We practiced all the basic skills, practiced rapid response to emergency procedures and generally gained confidence in our new team’s ability to have fun running the whitewater rapids in a safe and controlled manner.

The first stretch of rapids was nicknamed Pinball rapids, because of the fast water flowing around large boulders that were scattered in the river like obstacles in the old pinball machines. We were a little slow to react to Chris’s commands and bumped through this section. After we were through this stretch, Chris rested us and provided some constructive criticism and coaching, with a couple of stories about himself and other guides. Again, paying attention to the team members in ensure that everybody was safe, relaxed and having fun. All these things are also important for the family business team.

After a lunch and great fellowship with our guide, we piled back into our raft for the most difficult section of the mighty Snake River. By this time, the team had gelled into a cohesive, spirited team that felt confident to conquer the river. This belief was reinforced again and again, not only from our guide, who was now our friend, but because we had experienced the river, done some things really well and lived after screwing up some of the approaches to the rapids by not following Chris’s commands. Chris kept the proper perspective on our performance, he knew what we needed to do right every time and where close was good enough. He dished out praise, corrections, humor and encouragement as he felt it was needed.

Lunchbox Rapids was the most challenging whitewater we would see that day. He stopped the raft short of the approach, explained the rapids to us, told us what we had to do right to stay out of danger, and reminded us that we were here to enjoy ourselves. The 8 individuals that had climbed into the raft some 3 hours earlier now pictured themselves as a well oiled rafting machine. Sure, we were a bit delusional, but life sometimes requires us to be less that totally rational. So, with the right leader, the right equipment, the right skill levels, and last but not least, the right attitude and expectations we conquered the Lunchbox rapids. Lunchbox Rapids was named not as a place to eat lunch, but a place where a lot of rafters had the rapids eat their lunch.

The trip ended shortly after that and we all went our way after expressing our thanks to the guide, tipping him generously and believing that we were an awesome rafting team. The management lessons that I gleaned from the day on the river are quite simple and straight forward. These lessons are basic to leading people and apply directly to leading the family business.

  1. Accept the team as they come to you.
  2. Know your core competencies and work to take your appropriate place on the team. Assume the leadership role if you are elected.
  3. Accept the burden of leadership in an attitude of service, not to be served.
  4. Analyze each member’s core competencies, attitudes and desires.
  5. Approach the business as a game and a serious venture, but also as a fun journey.
  6. Ensure that all members understand the basic safety rules, boundaries and levels of performance that is required for success.
  7. Lead from the back of the raft, not the front. In the front, you can’t observe, evaluate or coach effectively. Plus the workers need to feel and see the challenges and obstacles so they can use their skills to be successful. Be an effective coach, mentor, and instructor, not a doer.
  8. Provide direction, encouragement, feedback and  praise continuously. The really effective leaders analyze performance, develop skills and maintain morale and continuously update the game plan for the team.
  9. Develop effective communication platforms so the team always knows what is facing them. Effective leadership encourages team members to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Just as our river guide always informed us about the upcoming sections of the river, inform your team about what is coming at them next. That way there will be fewer surprises.

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Now that you have been down the Snake River with me, develop your ability to lead your team from the back of the raft.
Mike Salisbury can be reached at 208-226-5472 or msalisbury@coopernorman.com.



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