Canoe Leadership #2 (Click here for Part #1)
Our “Canoe Leadership Event” was held on the Rogue River in Rockford, Michigan (thank-you AAA Canoe Livery!) – 2+ hours canoeing, food, and a hearty debrief afterward. Thirty people, 14 canoes, and 2 kayaks. The scenery was gorgeous – fall leaves just beginning to turn. The sun streaming through the trees. A peacefulness that was palpable…breathtaking! Once in the canoes and on the river, the team couldn’t help but get in the groove. Despite the initial challenges, everyone was in flow…chilled out, connected, motivated, energized, having fun…well, for the first two-thirds of the river anyway, which was narrow, shallow, “twisty” – interesting. The last third however, was less so – wide, with l-o-n-g stretches of nothingness. Almost overwhelming when you’re tired.
One of my favorite moments during the debrief was a comment, an aha, from one of the higher-level leaders who talked about how grueling it was on that last stretch. How it took every ounce of energy to get to the endpoint. And just before the last bend, with no end in sight, how exhausted he was (remember the competitiveness from the last excerpt?! Paddling at breakneck speeds!). In that final stretch, most of the group felt a rush of “I-give-up-when-is-this-going-to-end-ness?”. He wasn’t alone.
This was a perfect metaphor for their business. This company has been growing exponentially. They have a seasonal business, and the holidays are crazy-insane. The regular pre-season business has eclipsed the previous year’s seasonal business! No letting up!!
Sometimes it is difficult for leadership to understand/identify with/“feel” what employees are going through. Empathy in leadership is a big deal. Employees are willing to go the extra distance, especially when leadership recognizes the obstacles and can empathize with (and cheer on!) extra effort. But leaders are often unable to connect to this trait. The leaders canoeing definitely did. The toughest part of the journey, the last leg, was their “seasonal business”, when they were expected to paddle harder and faster than ever. They got it, the leadership team understood first hand what the team feels like during their peak season. So right then and there, during the debrief, the group did some problem-solving and came up great ideas to help the team get/feel that sense of accomplishment along the way – adding milestones, progress indicators, and increased communication.
How can you tap into your leadership empathy?