Last October, I ended up having an amazing outing with a client company, but that is NOT how it started. The originally scheduled mid-August outing had been rescheduled for October 2nd. Granted, Michigan is beautiful in October, but our outing involved canoes and water. Different perspective. For anyone not familiar with the Midwest, it can be pretty chilly mid-October, and Mother Nature did not disappoint. At 10:00 a.m. 30 leaders gathered to climb into canoes for a 2-hour paddle, to be followed by a (hopefully DRY) debrief. There was a Plan B, but my intuition said this group needed to experience this river on this day to learn the lessons they were supposed to learn on their leadership journey, and below is the first.
#1 of 3-part series
Faces were grim. People were visibly irritated. Standing in the parking lot for the Leadership Canoe Outing kick-off, it was evident the vibe was less than positive. I was determined to stay upbeat despite the group’s mood – it was barely 50 degrees, the wind was pretty kicked up, and teeth were already chattering. I had a brief “what was I thinking?” moment but quickly dismissed it…onward! What was waiting for them was an elaborate customized course I had set up along the river involving stopping points, elaborate instructions, a competitive element, switching canoes, new partners at each stop (the new partner list to be discovered!), and leadership lessons galore.
To my surprise, a few (very high-ranking and competitive!!) leaders took the liberty of looking at the roster in advance, finding their partners, and getting situated at the starting point for a little competitive advantage. “Ready, set, go!” Needless to say, those first-in-the-water leaders were quickly way ahead of the pack! Three canoes in particular were in the lead, fighting it out for the top spot. Paddling furiously. What they had neglected to realize was that there was no “top spot”. Because they would have new partners at the first switch-point (individuals who had not yet arrived!!). They would end up having to stop… wait… and as it turned out… wait some more. The canoer’s in the last-to-arrive canoe ended up being partnered with the leaders in the first-to-arrive canoe! The debrief (and the ensuing aha) was priceless!
The first leaders to arrive at Switch-point #1 talked about how exhilarating it had been to be in the lead… adrenaline pumping, competitive juices flowing, eagerness and anticipation, only to hit a brick wall. When it dawned on them that they would have to switch canoes and partners their momentum was completely gone. Deflated, they sat and waited. And waited. Demotivated. Disheartened. Disappointed. Watching others come and go. And yet, REAL LIFE. It is not uncommon during an exciting run of work-place momentum, to have to stop and wait for others to catch up/get it/get on board. What we do in those moments defines us and our leadership. Fortunately these leaders ultimately made a great choice. I saw them (admirably) switch gears, re-prioritize, and patiently put the needs of the other canoers ahead of their own while they waited – helping stragglers en route – instructing, connecting, cheering, and even getting in the very cold water to pull canoes to shore! But they felt it. They felt how easy it was to let their competitive juices get the better of them, allowing them to forget their followers.
During the debrief, one of my favorite aha’s was that although they had not crossed the finish line first, they stated that they had ultimately won (!!). “Their people” expressed how truly touched and impressed they were by the Servant Leadership these leaders displayed. On that chilly October day, they gained a few more followers…on the river, in a canoe.
[NOTE: The Raw Leadership Experience™ is an immersive leadership learning experience while engaging in a hands-on team-building activity. Studies show that learning is deeper, more meaningful, and longer-lasting when tied to visceral, experiential learning. We create programs to stimulate out-of-the-box thinking, foster higher-level processing, and connections between the activity experience and “real life” leadership.]