Leadership On The River

For a long time, we have been an advocate for leadership development, succession planning, and the transfer of talent. You simply can’t run an organization successfully for long without a stable of competent leaders. Furthermore, organizations must actively nurture leadership. Professional grade leadership skills, behaviors and qualifications don’t just spontaneously occur without the investment, discipline and training that can only come through the organization.

This belief was reinforced in a compelling way while we were conducting an intriguing learning event we call “Leadership on the River.” The workshop is held on portions of the magnificent Colorado River in some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, deep inside Canyonlands National Park. Our intense learning occurred in the middle of the Cataract Canyon which can be exciting and challenging in both low or high water.

On this particular day, the river was flowing at about 60,000 cubic feet per second. Our group was an intact team of business unit leaders, who were working on their leadership, strategic thinking skills, building relationships and trust, as well as celebrating the success they have achieved in the previous twelve months.

Split into two separate groups, each team had a separate boat with a leader, the experienced river guide, and a senior CMOE facilitator, who helped instill the learning, insights and appreciation to be gained from each challenge. On the river, fortunes can reverse quickly. Such was the case as we attempted to navigate our way through a rapid that is affectionately called “Ben Hurt”. We decided that the name must be due to a few large boulders that can run your raft aground or upside-down in a heart beat! Since we had been on the river quite a while, the team was becoming both confident & competent in their river running skills.

Then it hit…a rogue wave & deep hole that seemed to come out of nowhere! Suddenly, our river guide was ejected from the raft like a jet fighter pilot. Two of our team members rapidly followed suit. It happened fast and no one realized that our trusted guide & coach were no longer in the lead, and the remaining crew members were on their own. We were quickly on our way to an organizational meltdown! At first there was an eerie void and emptiness. We all looked at each other briefly as the next rapid was approaching. Someone yelled out desperately “Now what do we do?” Obviously we felt a little helpless at first; we just hadn’t discussed the possibility of losing our leader and what the plan would be if this should happen. We should have anticipated this scenario.

Up to this point, we were dependant on our leader for coaching, navigation and safety direction. Fortunately, I remembered all the river lessons we had been taught over the past day and half. And since I had been seated next to our captain, I slid back into her position, yelled to the swimmers to work their way back to the raft. Then our team pulled them in & I called for a hard right side paddle and a left side reversal to avoid the next obstacle. It was truly an “Alexander Hage” moment when someone needed to step up and lead.

CMOE’s Leadership On The RiverDuring the debrief we were all reminded that many organizations don’t take development or succession planning seriously. We never expected to lose our leader and guide, so we didn’t prepare for or anticipate what we would do in this eventuality. As a result of this impactful experience, our team of business leaders made a pact to be more strategic in planning leadership development experiences and being more focused on succession planning. It was a powerful and lasting lesson that will change the way these managers run their businesses.

At the end of our trip, the team put together a specific action plan to put all of the lessons to work and to prepare the organization for the next wave of “Ben Hurt” opportunities and threats. If you would like to put your leadership team to the test, join us on the River, it is a fun and business strategy changing time!

A Discussion On The River:

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About the Author

Steven Stowell, Ph.D.

Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth. Steve began his career working in the energy industry. During the past 30 years, Steve has consulted with both small and large corporations, government agencies, school systems, and non-profit organizations in 35 different countries. Steve enjoys the challenges of • Helping functional organizations define, create, and execute strategy in order to differentiate the business. • Developing and designing creative and innovative learning experiences, simulations, and keynote presentations. • Helping functions across the organization be more effective and aligned in executing long-term plans. The centerpiece of Steve’s consulting, learning, and executive coaching work is his advocacy of applied research and data collection. Steve is a highly effective presenter and facilitator and enjoys creating customized solutions, assisting senior teams, defining strategic direction from the individual level to the corporate and business-unit level, and improving teams that are faced with important challenges and issues.