5 Team Leadership Lessons from the Savegre River

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There is no better place to watch effective team leadership in action than on a white water rafting trip.

I had the opportunity to go rafting on the Savegre River in Costa Rica in late February.   There were five of us in the raft plus our guide.  We were all new to this team that was going down river for the next two hours.  Two of us had rafted together before, but each river, each team is different.

Our guide (“team leader”) had over a decade of experience on the Savegre with its Class I, II and III rapids.  His job was to get us down river safely to our final landing point (“the project”) by steering the raft with his paddle from the stern of the raft, assessing the river and rapids ahead, directing the team to take action with voice commands, and pulling team members out of the racing water should we fall out of the raft.

What better metaphor for effective team leadership than five simple lessons from observing our white water rafting guide.

Equip Your Team

When we arrived at the mustering location for the rafting trip, we received the appropriate equipment for the project — helmet, life vest and paddle — and an introduction to our raft and guide.

How often do we ask people to take on a project with insufficient resources?

Train Your Team

After an equipment check — chin strap tightly fastened on the helmet, life vest right sized to close completely — our guide explained his role and our roles.  He showed us how to sit in the raft and how to handle the paddle correctly … and how to avoid injuring other team members by mishandling our paddles.   Then came the command instructions — “Paddle forward”, “Left forward”, “Right forward”, “Back”, “Lean …”, “HANG ON!” — followed by a demonstration of the correct way to paddle.  It didn’t matter how many times any of us had rafted, this orientation was absolutely necessary.

Probably the most important training was on what to do if one of us went into the river.  First rule of the river is “Don’t fight it!”  Get on your back, point your feet downstream and float … toward the project goal.  Why?  Simply, you don’t want your head slamming into rocks, and you don’t want to drown.  Your guide will maneuver the raft to you, bring you close to the raft, and literally yank you back into the raft by your life vest.

Set the expectations for the team and provide instruction on how to meet them.

Guide Your Team

Reading the river ahead, our guide issued commands to propel the raft forward, turn it left or right, slow it down, or literally “HANG ON!”  Some direction has to be ad hoc, like telling us how to help him free our raft when we bottomed in some shallow water.  In the calm stretches of the river, our guide provided a commentary on the river itself, as well as the flora and fauna surrounding us … continually sharing his knowledge of the river.

Set the context of the project in addition to directing the actions of the team.  Share experience.

Assess Risks and Protect Your Team

Despite the skills of the guide and the efforts of the team, the swift river and rocks can upset a raft, sending one or more team members into the river.  I took a dunking when we spun in a Category II rapid.  Our guide had me back in the raft in less than a minute.  So it is with projects.

Lesson here: “When you have a problem with a project, rely on your team leader and team members …  and don’t bang your head into the rocks!”

Celebrate Successes

There is a lot of excitement and enjoyment in white water rafting.  And there is a great sense of accomplishment after each rapid.  Our guide gave positive verbal feedback all along the trip, and called for a “High Five!” at various times when we achieved a milestone like clearing one of the more difficult rapids.  What’s a “High Five!”?  Team members raise their paddles high over the center of the raft and click them together.  Seemingly silly?  Hardly.  It symbolizes the team work inherent in white water rafting.

Acknowledging even small project accomplishment can go a long way to building team morale and keeping a project on course.

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