Why leadership is like white water rafting (and how to ride that river)

Leading is like white water rafting.

There are moments when, buoyed along by your ambitions and the seductively sweet success of your recent professional exploits, it’s effortless. A blast. A veritable funparty.  

You’re a free spirited ten year old, joy riding that river on your rubber tire, having the time of your life.

“Woo hooo!” You holler to everyone. “This leadership lark is da bomb! Let me keep ridin’ this sick river! Come on in! The water’s great!”

What to do? Enjoy it.  

Seriously. The best way to honour the good times in your leadership journey is to relish them. Soak up the moments you and your team are on fire. Reflect on why you’re loving the ride right now.

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These occasions provide you with a brief glimpse into what makes you come alive and what lights your fire. Don’t fall into the trap of worrying about some imagined future. Be grateful you now know what magical gifts leadership can bring.

At other times, your river journey is like a quiet stretch of still water. The river silently (almost imperceptibly) sweeps you around each seemingly identical canopy-shaded bend in the river.

The moments when you’re waiting for the next big career move.

No exciting product launches.
No innovations on the horizon.
Flat markets.
Nothin’ happening.
Zip. De nada.

You’re an extra in a weird white water version of the movie Groundhog Day.

These empty leadership periods can make us feel restless. Bored. Ants in our pants eager for the ‘next big thing’.

But a wise leader does not resist or hurry these metaphorical pauses. Sage leaders accept these quiet moments with open hands.

What to do?

Remind yourself that the river is always changing.
Lie back and relax in your black rubber armchair.
Look up at the sky.
Take a deep breath.
Enjoy the scenery.

Notice what gifts lie in the ordinary and the seemingly repetitive.

[Tweet “Notice what gifts lie in the ordinary and the seemingly repetitive.”]

Just when you think you should ditch your river ride, you will round the bend and hit a mile high wall of water. As the raft surges over stormy rapids, the rocks tear you apart.

That product recall.
That PR disaster.
That market nose dive.
That industry disruption you never saw coming.
That restructuring.

That oh-so-difficult leadership lesson that blindsides you on a random weekday afternoon. Leaving you at the bottom of the river, not knowing which way is up, why you’re here or WTF to do next.

My advice?

Pause. Even for a metaphorical nanosecond. Enough to shut down your amygdala and tap into your wiser self.

It might be the overnight test.
It might be calling your ‘go to person’ who offers an objective sounding board and wise counsel.
It might be merely stopping what you are doing and taking a few big deep breaths (literally).
Or it might be taking a ten minute walk in the fresh air, to gather your thoughts and decide what is needed.

And as you lay battered and bruised at the bottom of the boat – even then, your river ride can provide valuable lessons, if you’re willing to reflect and learn.

Your failures, your f@&k ups, those merciless leadership rides where you’re dumped ceremoniously out of the boat – these too are part of this glorious white water ride we call leadership.

The stones worn away smooth by the harshest of rapids attest to this theory.

So the next time you find yourself in one of these crazy ‘rafting’ experiences, no matter how wild, weird, whimsical, or whatever…remember this is all part of the ride.

From white water rafting to still, quiet stretches, leadership is knowing when to dig in your oars. When to lie back in your raft and gaze at the sky. And when to enjoy the scenery.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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