Whitewater rafting and the frothy uncertainty of leadership
Dr. Matt Mulford and Dr. Randall P. White recently sat down with their friends at TRIUM Global Executive MBA in a conversation about the future of leadership. This video is one short segment from the hour-long session.
Here, Matt brought up Randy’s first book on leadership with its allusion to whitewater sports. Is it still valid in today’s business environment? No spoilers here: yes. But here are some thoughts on why.
Transcript from the session:
Matt Mulford: Listen, I wanted to start because, as Alexander said, you have this book called, if I get the right title The Future of Leadership – Riding the Corporate Rapids into the 21st Century (The book was originally titled “White Water Leadership” but changed due to the “whitewater controversy” of President Clinton). So, this kind of brings into my mind, your kind of whitewater rapids. And I just wondered why use this metaphor. What do you think the metaphor buys us?
Randy White: Well, there’s a story behind this metaphor. And I wrote this with my colleague, Phil Hodgson, from Ashridge in the UK, and we had been studying men and women who were taking over senior leadership positions in large organizations.
And what we began to notice is they were prepared and in many, many ways. Yet, what they weren’t prepared for was the uncertainty, and the changing environments that they were stepping into — if you will, the messiness of leadership. And what we thought, Matt – and by the way, we’ve been castigated by Fast Company in an article some years ago about the title – was that the whitewater rapids analog, was the perfect metaphor for us, because you can go through those rapids and as you gain experience, and sort of tacit knowledge, and with a guide, with a good team, you can traverse what would otherwise be some very dangerous sorts of situations.
Without a good team, without a guide, without confidence, you crash on the rocks. And we thought that was a good way of saying, listen, as you’re taking over this senior leadership role, you may be prepared in many, many ways, but you may not be completely prepared for the whitewater — for the froth for, the uncertainty, for the confusion…these treacherous issues you might face. Again, I want to say not everyone bought it.
And our biggest problem, Matt is when we first tried to talk about this, everyone thought we were referring in historical terms to Bill Clinton’s Whitewater scandal, which wasn’t true at all. So anyway, that’s the story.
Matt: I gotcha. I gotcha.
Well, you know, it’s interesting, because I’ve been lucky enough to do whitewater rafting quite a few times. And it’s one of the things I’d like to do and what I thought about is that this might kind of add to your repertoire of why it’s such a great analogy.
For anybody who’s done this before. You know, that if you’re in rapids, and you aren’t moving faster than the water, you have no control. So, if you just float through the rapids, you’re gone, because the water will push you into the rocks. And the only way that you have any ability to steer is to go faster than the water you’re on.
So, when you’re when you’re first starting whitewater rafting, one of the things that’s really counterintuitive is you’re going along, everything’s great, and you hear this cloud of mist coming up, and you’re like, “Ah!” and then the guide says, “Row!” and you go, “What? that’s the last thing I want to do! I don’t want to go faster towards this big danger.” But if you don’t move, that’s when you’re in danger. So, if you freeze, that’s when you’re in danger. And I thought that that was a nice little add to your analogy.
Randy: Well, and remember there are different sizes of boats with different numbers of crew. But let’s presume that you’re on one of those holiday outings and you are all the crew, and you are trying to learn how to do this.
What you also quickly learn is you have to play to one another’s strengths and downsides. And that becomes another important conversation: “We’re in whitewater, we’ve got to survive.”
In fact, what we’d really like to do is thrive. We’d like to build our skill, so that we can deal with this sort of frothy uncertainty, and we need to use the collective knowledge, wisdom, character capabilities of the team.
And that was also something we were trying to get at Matt, because it’s very tough for some people to realize they can no longer do everything all by themselves. And then and they need to rely on these other people who are in the boat with them their senior team.