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Whitewater Leadership: Navigating Through Turbulent Times by Michael Sipe

whitewaterWe’re living in truly turbulent times. As a leader, what will guide your actions in the days ahead? How will you calm, encourage and inspire those you lead? You can help people gain fresh perspectives by using analogies and metaphors. Your life story holds experiences that can serve as solid reference points for your leadership message of hope and empowerment. Perhaps you’ll find grounding in military, sports, business, family or faith experiences.

Over the last 65 years, I’ve accumulated a lot of those reference points. Especially relevant right now are the many experiences I’ve had rafting and kayaking down raging whitewater. Perhaps you can relate. Even if you’ve never directly had the experience of blasting through a violent stretch of rapids and emerging victorious, the following nine lessons from the river will prove useful in navigating the challenges you face today, because leadership in turbulent times is a lot like navigating rough water.

Remember How You Got Here. When you face a terrifying rapid, it’s tempting to ask, “Why me … what am I even doing here?” But this is not a useful question. No one forced you to launch. You knew when you hopped in the boat to begin with that there would be challenges. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons you got in the boat … to intentionally stretch yourself and experience the tests that were sure to come. The same holds true for leadership. Regardless of whether you volunteered, or have been thrust into a position of leadership, you accepted the responsibility. You are here, because you made a choice to be here. Now make the best of it.

Don’t Paddle Alone. Anyone who attempts to tackle a stretch of serious whitewater alone is an idiot. You need a capable team. You can guide and coach each other. You can encourage each other. You can save each other when you inevitably flip. Just as on the river, a lone ranger strategy for leadership in turbulent times is deeply flawed. Ancient wisdom says, “For by wise counsel you will wage your own war [run your own river]. In a multitude of counselors there is safety.” Are you surrounded by a group of wise and trusted counselors? If so, take maximum advantage of this. If not, gather a team immediately. The tests ahead demand it.

You Came to Run the River. If you had wanted to float on a placid lake, you’d be somewhere else. You’re here for the adventure. You also didn’t come to hang out in a slough. You know what a slough is? It’s that miserable, stagnant, bug-infested false channel off the main river that goes nowhere. It’s a bad place. Neither do you want to circle and swirl endlessly, around and around in a big back-eddy. When you study the history of the Israelites, they spent 40-years stuck in the Old Testament desert-equivalent of a back-eddy, lacking the courage to tackle the challenge before them. Have you ever found yourself in a leadership slough or an organizational back-eddy? Paddling, but going nowhere? Get out of there. Now.

Recall Why You Trust. Plunging into whitewater requires trust. Trust in your gear. Trust in your paddling partners. Trust in yourself. Trust in the skills you’ve honed. Trust in the evidence of past success. And then there is faith and trust in something bigger than you. There are no atheists in foxholes or when trapped underwater in a big, sucking, re-circulating hole; when you’re hypothermic, out of breath and struggling frantically to live. As you face today’s leadership challenge, in what will you place your trust?

Deal With the Rapid in Front of You. On the river, you can only handle one rapid at a time. Worrying about all the other rapids ahead, feeling sorry you’re there, wishing the rapid wasn’t so big, fretting about past wrecks, even reflecting on your previous “glory runs;” all that is useless. There is a job at hand. That’s the one that must be tackled successfully. Right now. As a leader, ask yourself, “What is the single most important challenge I must address right now?” Then do that.

Find the Line. There is always a way. Before every big, treacherous rapid, seasoned guides gather on a vantage point above the river to scout the obstacles. They find the line and set a strategy for a successful run. Only fools paddle blindly into turbulent water or dangerous business situations. Pause. Gather smart people. Climb above the crashing waves, get a clear look and set a sound strategy. Find the line.

Commit and Go. Turning back is not an option. Paddling back upstream doesn’t work. There comes a time for decisive action. You must point the bow of your boat directly into the fearsome waves. If you back in, you’ll flip and die. If you sort of slide in sideways, you’ll flip and die. If you choke and try to back away at the last minute, you’ll have no power or momentum and you’ll flip and die. Success lies only in committing, powering forward and punching through. Is it time in the crisis you face to simply commit and go? After all, it’s the leader’s job to say, “Follow me.”

Eyes on the Prize. Once you’re in the rapid, there’s danger in fixating on the rock or the hole immediately in front of you. However, you go where you look. If you focus on the jagged rock, you’ll hit the rock, flip and die. If you focus on the monster hole, you’ll get buried in the hole, flip and die. None of those are desirable options. The prize is arriving upright, dry, breathing and exhilarated in the calm water just downstream of the maelstrom. If you’ve ever skied, ridden horses, blasted down single track on a mountain bike or raced a motorcycle, you know that you absolutely MUST keep your eyes on where you want to go. In a time of crisis, it’s easy to fixate on the problems, but the leader’s job is to lift your eyes and the eyes of those you lead and focus on the prize. Where do you want to go? Look there.

Enjoy the Ride. Many years ago, one of my first river guides was a tiny woman named Ann. On land, you’d never guess she was a superwoman with the oars. I still remember glancing at her right before we launched over Lava Falls, a class 10 rapid on the Grand Canyon. She had a huge grin on her face! As we smashed through that enormous drop, I heard her laughing uproariously. She came to enjoy the ride.

As we face the leadership road ahead, we can choose to whine and complain. Or as Jim Rohn used to say, “Quit asking why it’s so hard. Ask instead how you can get better.” We can choose to find the joy in the test. We can embrace the fact that we are here, in this moment, to lead in a time like this. Let’s enjoy the ride.” I wish you success in navigating the challenges ahead of you. Find the line, commit and go. Trust. Keep your eyes on the prize. Enjoy the ride.

Michael Sipe is a serial entrepreneur, mergers and acquisitions advisor, and executive coach to CEOs and business owners, many of whom are in the top 1% of income earners in the country. He is the founder of 10x Catalyst Groups, which helps entrepreneurs grow profitable and thriving businesses organized on a foundation of Biblical principles.

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