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Paddles, Portages, and Pings on Leadership

Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

Control is not leadership; management is not leadership; leadership is leadership. If you seek to lead, invest at least 50 percent of your time in leading yourself–your purpose, ethics, principles, motivation, and conduct. Invest at least 20 percent leading those with authority over you and 15 percent leading your peers. - Dee Hock

After three long days of a very intensive workshop in Toronto, a group of us decided to go canoeing for a day up in Barre, Ontario (an hour north of Toronto) on the Nottawasaga River. It was a warm day, the water was warm, and no one else was on this pristine flat-water river winding through a protected swamp.

We had idyllic moments out of time, mishaps and laughs, and the slogs of carrying canoes and gear (called a portage) around logjams in the river more than a few times, as well as the insufferable companionship of mosquitoes.

Why am I sharing this with you? I want to share some of the pings of the day, which were all about leadership and the dynamics of leadership. It was reassuring and inspiring to see leadership arise from several group members, adding strength and depth.

Great leaders are constantly working on themselves. In this case, the leaders never stopped paddling. They led by example. Despite the mosquitoes, they stayed focused on the aim of the day, 19 km through the utter wilderness.

Exemplary leaders do not push or manage a lot. They problem-solve, then inspire and motivate the team. You can be a strong leader without being impolite. When a canoe capsized, a leader did not wait for the organizer to suggest it; a leader just handed people life jackets and said, "Put it on," because it was the right thing to do. Another leader figured out how to recover, right, and empty the canoe.

Leadership means learning to be bold without being a bully. To build your influence, you must walk the talk in front of your group, team, or clients. You must tackle the first problem, seize the moment, and make quick decisions. In our case, it was a leader choosing the portages.

Leadership also means learning to develop humor - but without folly. It is OK to be witty but not silly, to have fun and be funny without being foolish. A leader's response to the first person getting dunked in the river was to put a positive spin on the slight mishap -- just like we all do for a baby learning to walk or a child learning to ride a bicycle. This leadership skill was brought out in many of our leaders later in the trip when we kept sinking into the mud or our shoes got stuck in the ground. One leader unabashedly sang old songs on the portages as a distraction from mosquitoes feasting on us.

Leaders are good at dealing with reality. They accept life as it is. This is not fatalism or the opposite of optimism. It is practicality. It is a constructive approach to the truth. On the river, when the mosquitoes and logjams got to us all late in the day, there was a dramatic switch in group dynamics. Leaders recognized what had to be done, picked up the pace, and did it without discussion, negotiation, or complaining.

In the end, I think we had more fun, and the adventure was more memorable because of the challenges that brought out our strengths. As leaders, we want to inspire the people around us to bring out their strengths. So, what adventure will you organize to inspire the people around you?

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