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Navigating a turbulent river in a canoe is a powerful metaphor for the challenges of leadership. I learned that lesson first hand last month during a whitewater canoeing course in the Yukon. That visceral experience deepened my understanding of the operating conditions of the fear-based world, figuratively and literally.  I was reminded that day that leaders can use fear or be used by it. In Balanced Leadership terms, it’s either rising to the challenge facing us – activating our Hero energy – or not and getting pushed around to our peril.


Our whitewater canoeing instructor set the stage for a day of leadership lessons. She told us the river is very pushy, and we would have to push back against it or it would push us into danger.  Lead or be led! I was suddenly very focused on how I could push back.

Pushing back against the river hazards is a fitting metaphor for what our work requires us to do at times. Drawing on my canoeing experience, here are some lessons on how to use the operating system of the fear-based world to your advantage:

1) Identify the challenge and set a goal: As a leader it is important to have  a clear concept of what the ultimate goal is.  On the river it was to navigate 20 kilometers in a skilled way arriving safely at the take-out.  It was important to note the goal was way more than just survival.  We wanted the skills to master the challenges ahead.  This came down to the ability to read the water and know the appropriate stroke to control our movement.  In archetypal terms, it’s the Hero sizing up the challenge ahead an determining his focus. As a leader, make sure everyone on your team has a clear and realistic picture of the goal and what is at stake if you are not successful.  This is not a time to sugarcoat the challenges you are facing.  In times of danger (i.e. a goal with a ticking clock) you want a highly motivated and focused team who make fear work for them, not against them.  Also, make it clear you will lay out a plan that will lead to success and “safety” – the reward for a job well done.

2) Break the goal down into manageable parts (with re-set time built in):  Plan, execute, and regroup one leg of the challenge at a time, keeping in mind the overall destination.  We conquered a class 2+ river all day long by finding a series of back eddies to duck into and plot the next section.  If we had taken on the whole thing at once it would have been a hair-raising trip from one life threatening chaotic moment to the next.  This can be done for any work challenge as well.  Give each team member a task that is just beyond their comfort zone and ask them to stretch.  This is where knowing the individual strengths of your team really pays off.  Provide opportunities to step out of the fray to plot the next move. These moments to “re-calibrate” are critically important. Rushing ahead without forethought, or equally unproductive, dwelling on past mistakes, is wasted energy. In archetypal terms, Heroes learn from mistakes and get back on track. They push back against the impulse to wallow (self-flagellation).

3)  Manage risk wisely:  Safety procedures are developed for a reason. They are developed through years of dealing with the potential and experienced downsides of challenging situations and seeing how to mitigate them. Rigidly stick to the procedures that are known to reduce risks even when it seems a remote possibility that you will need them.  In whitewater canoeing, it’s the advice to “always wear your helmet and lifejacket, and go feet first down the river on your back if you fall in” rules that save lives when things go unexpectedly wrong.  Heroes have to survive to fight another day.  I found myself swapmed in water and pushed under before I knew I was in trouble.  My helmet protected me from the log that whacked me on the head, my life-jacket held me in a position to breath because I had strapped in on correctly.  It was cold but otherwise I was fine.  Every time you look at a risk you can take the edge of fear off by counting on your safety processes.  Every time you thwart disaster because you saw it coming and prepared against it, your team’s self confidence expands.

4)  Execute the plan: when the moment comes when you are facing the big battle (a huge curling wave or a submission deadline) fear starts to gather in your gut.  The key is to focus on the plan and do your part.  You’ve practiced and have the business version of paddle strokes and safety procedures to move you towards success.  All you have to think about is doing your job well.  This focus of mind pushes fear from your head and let’s you do your best job.  Fear becomes a motivator rather than a chemical flood that leaves you frozen.

5)  Don’t Forget to Enjoy the Reward:  Hero work is about delayed gratification.  Sacrifice something now, for a bigger gain in the future.  The reward is really important. Stop and notice that you achieved what you needed to do.  You pushed back the boundaries of mortality and your world is now bigger.  Savour that for a moment.