Sunday, July 30, 2006

Lessons from the River: Teamwork & Leadership

A couple of weeks ago, Dave and I went whitewater rafting on the Youghiogheny (YOK-i-gain-ee) River in southwestern Pennsylvania. Dave did some whitewater kayaking years ago, but this was his first time on a raft. It was my first whitewater experience of any kind.

We had such a good time that, as I write, we are revising our plans for our September vacation. Instead of taking a quiet vacation on the seashore at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, we are going to explore the mountains and rivers of West Virginia via raft and horseback. We have both been doing Internet research all morning. Dave is continuing his research while I take a break to write this post.

As we paddled 7.5 miles in about 4 hours (including a 1/2 hour lunch break), Dave and I made some interesting observations about teamwork and leadership.

First, we observed how the various guides on the trip acted as a coherent team. Throughout the trip, the lead guide consulted the other team members about their various responsibilities. Moreover, the guides regularly consulted each other about swapping duties so that one person did not always have to take the lead or watch the rear or keep the lifeline ready and so on. Dave and I were impressed with how efficiently and effectively the guide team worked together.

Second, we noted that everybody in the raft has to function as part of a team. When the raft is in motion, all paddling must be synchronized to gain the maximum benefit from the least amount of effort. When the raft is lodged on top of a rock, all team members must act in unision to rock the raft or shift their weight to dislodge and get back into the water. Also, the person in the back of the raft is the captain who actually steers the raft and instructs the others about when and how to paddle. The captain does the steering, the rest of the team merely provides additional propulsive power as needed. When the team functions smoothly as a unit, the rafting experience is rewarding.

Third, we noticed what happens when the members of a raft team do not work well together. In some cases, when rafts were stuck atop rocks, some people were trying to rock while others were shifting their weight. Or several people were trying to be the captain and yelling out contradictory orders. Those teams took quite awhile to get their rafts situated into the water again. In other cases, when team members were thrown out of their rafts, the people still inside did not know how to help them back in or couldn't make up their minds what to do. Sometimes they just continued paddling and left the person floundering in the water to be rescued by another team in another raft.

One family in particular was really shaken up when the daughter, about 12 or 13 years old, fell into the river. The mother panicked and fell in while trying to help her daughter. The father jumped into the river to help his wife and daughter and then realized that, being in the water himself, he was just as helpless as they were. The guide in our raft ended up swimming over to help the girl and her brother, who was the only person left in the raft. We fished the mother out of the water and pulled her into our raft. The father ended up swimming to the shore until his family and raft were reunited. Meanwhile, their paddles had drifted way down river and had to be retrieved by a guide in an escort kayak. The family eventually got sorted out, but their expedition was somewhat spoiled by this episode.

It is appropriate at this point to commend the guides for the professional and sensitive way they dealt with a rather distraught family. During the lunch break, the lead guide spoke with the family and offered to get into their raft and steer them through some particularly tough rapids that were ahead. They gladly accepted his offer. He also spoke with the son, about 10 or 11 years old, who was particularly upset when his sister, mother and father all ended up going overboard. The guide acknowledged his feelings and said, "Yeah, it was pretty scary wasn't it?" He didn't minimize the boy's discomfort or talk down to him. He helped him deal with his fears straightforwardly and he helped the family regain confidence in themselves throughout the remainder of the trip.

Dave and I concluded that an expedition like this would be a great team-building/leadership exercise for camp staff, college RAs, etc. Working (paddling) together, following instructions, working through crises coherently and efficiently - all of these concepts are applied in whitewater rafting. Being the captain of a raft is also a great way to execise leadership - plotting the best route through the rapids, giving concise instructions in a timely manner, knowing when to steer and when to let the river's current carry your craft - these are all responsibilities that the captain bears.

When Dave and I climbed into our raft that morning we simply expected to have a good time on the river. We were pleasantly surprised when some valuable life lessons were included in the experience.


Jenn said...

man, you guys sot seriously gyped! out rafting guides did everything they could to send us in the water - off the record of course!

Evie Sears said...

Interesting. Our guides took pride in how long they could go without anyone going overboard. The guide in our boat had gone more than a year without dipping anybody. The day we went, one of our guys got dunked in one of the nastier rapids. He got a little winded and a lot wet, but we fished him out without any difficulty.

Joanne said...

So I want to know where the close up pictures of you guys in the gympy gear are. Now that takes guts, getting photographed in the gympy gear.

Evie Sears said...

You and a handful of others may think it takes guts to get photographed in gimpy gear. I and the vast majority of humankind would apply a less flattering adjective. ;-)

Barbara said...

next time we go rafting, we want to go with you. It sounds like a blast.

I loved the suits we had to wear ... very slimming ... I looked like elastagirl from the Incredibles. They wouldn't let me keep it!