One of my favourite summer activities is to set out on the water in a canoe with my family as far away from civilization as I can manage. Having recently returned from another trip, I’ve got canoeing on the brain again and thought it might be fun to explore the leadership lessons I have learned on the water.
1. “What else is going on for me that is influencing my reaction?”
Ok, actually this first lesson I learned while travelling in India with a few friends many, many years ago but it applies to canoeing with family as well. When I was 23 I travelled in India with two friends. Before we left, a shocking number of people told us that we would return enemies – these people assumed that it was impossible to travel well with another person. I love a challenge and set out to prove the naysayers wrong. I was determined the trip would go smoothly. And so, each time I became frustrated I asked myself three questions: Am I hungry? Am I thirsty? Am I overwhelmed? Usually I could say yes to at least one of those three questions. In fact, I discovered that a large percentage of the conflicts I could have experienced would have been self-generated. Yes, there were challenges along the way (like the time an interior flight was cancelled and everything that could go wrong did) but I observed that more than anything else, it was my reactions that created my pain. The more I could see the “environmental” reasons for my own reactions, the more I could avoid some conflicts altogether. The same holds true on the water. “Am I hungry? Am I thirsty? Am I overwhelmed?” Or, said more simply: “What else is going on for me that is influencing my reaction?”
2. It is hard to paddle alone.
This year, I had a 12 year old and a 13 year old in my canoe with me. On sunny days, they, um, enjoyed resting a fair bit. In other words, at least some times a good deal of my paddling was solo. But on the days where the wind blew hard, I depended on my two canoe-mates and they depended on me. We cannot traverse hard times alone. We need the support of those around us.
3. Sometimes those outside of your immediate situation can provide you with good advice!
On our first day out, despite my best efforts the wind kept pulling our canoe around. Then, someone from another canoe let me know that the weight in our canoe was imbalanced. We repositioned our bags and away we went, happily into the wind.
4. Nothing really beats good preparation.
Rains and storms may come, cuts and bruises may occur, and mosquitoes can buzz without end but when prepared, one can not only greet these obstructions with relative peace, one can accept them as an anticipated – even important – part of the journey.
5. Take time for joy, mystery, beauty and wonder.
On our trip, we found the most amazing beaver dam – at least 3 meters high and even more meters long. Above the dam, the backed up water had effectively killed the stand of birch trees that once had surrounded the erstwhile creek. Still standing, the trees now looked like white sentinels against a dark wooded background. We found this little bit of wonder by following a forgotten little creek and climbing alongside a waterfall out of which it tumbled. Had we been rushing, we never would have seen this mysterious little place. In work as in play, joy, mystery, beauty and wonder are there for the noticing.
Who knows what new leadership insights will emerge in such a mysterious context?