Navigating the Rapids: 4 Leadership Lessons From Whitewater Rafting

njoying the outdoors has long been an important part of who I am, and water of all kinds has been a big part of that. So much so that in my mid-20s, after completing an eye-opening job in social services, I looked to the river to restore my faith in humanity. And it did.

For three seasons, I guided vacationers and thrill-seekers alike through whitewater rapids on California’s mighty Kern river. I rode the rapids with lots and lots of families, bachelor and bachelorette parties, office team bonding groups 25-year olds on spring break - you name it, everyone. My job was to stoke enthusiasm and teach the basics while quickly creating an effective team and guaranteeing their safety. 

The experience gave me essential life and business principles that I put into action every day as the CEO and co-founder of Tablecloth. Let me tell you the most valuable things I learned.

4 Essential lessons for every leader

1. Give clear directions

In whitewater, there are two essential rafting pre-trip conversations. The most critical is the essential safety talk. The lesser-known paddle talk runs a close second.  

There are a series of basic phrases that everyone on a raft should expect to hear and act on. Paddle commands that are simple and clear work best. Forward paddle! Back! Right side! Left side! Stop! High side! These commands are straightforward, no interpretation necessary, so your crew can capably act in high-stress situations. Navigating a boulder garden or a Class IV rapid? No problem. A strong paddle talk gives your team the tools to be the most effective, making it more fun to guide and ride the raft down the river. 

The same goes in business. Tablecloth’s coin is in complex data. We turn that data into actionable information so that private equity investors can make clear decisions that support their portfolio companies. We provide context, breaking down information into actionable steps. While our conclusions require a bit more interpretation than paddle commands, it remains true that simple is always best. 

2. You’re as strong as your team

When heading through, say, long rapids, everyone must act together, so I always aimed to create a positive, unified environment in my raft. Rafting is fun, so it was relatively simple; enthusiasm and positive reinforcement often did the trick. “Keep paddling!” “We got this!” Brainstorming a boat name or creating competitions for the cleanest run with other rafts also brought the crew together, sometimes leading to lots of splash fights between the rapids.

A good raft guide listens to their group, responds to pain points and finds common ground. The best guides have the ability to make challenges into thrills. In business as in rafting, effective team leaders provide motivation, guidance and focus.

3. Knowledge is power

Sometimes it takes a bit more than encouragement and positive reinforcement to get a team to work together. Sometimes it’s using your knowledge as power. A particular experience in my first year guiding illustrates this perfectly.

There was a raft customer who wouldn’t listen. He clearly thought he knew better than the young lady who was the captain of the boat, me. Which was entertaining, because he’d never rafted before. I'd call commands, “forward paddle” and he'd do the opposite.

His actions were destabilizing the raft – and I mean that literally and figuratively.  So I gave him a warning before the next big rapid: “Look, I need you to do what I'm telling you to do or you're going to take a swim.” 

I knew the class IV rapid well so I called commands. He continued to do the opposite, so, knowing that I could safely navigate the next rapid on my own, I stopped calling commands.  I also knew that given where and how he was sitting he’d probably get bumped out of the boat and have to swim. 

I was right. He swam, very safely mind you, down the rest of the rapid. I knew there was a big pool at the bottom and it was all going to be just fine. I came over the side of the raft, held him by the lifejacket and calmly but firmly said, “Are you going to listen to me?” And he did for the rest of the trip.

There are business situations where it’s necessary to use your knowledge as power to get the best results for your whole team. I did that, and made sure my whole boat remained afloat for the rest of the trip. 

4. Read the water

Unlike a road, the surface beneath a boat doesn’t stay still. A river is constantly changing, water levels go up and down, what was previously a hole that could flip the raft becomes a rock to avoid. It’s unpredictable. To read it well requires continual observation, called scouting. Scouting big rapids involves getting out of the boat and analyzing the river before any rafts head down. What routes are open today? Is the current the same as it was yesterday? Is that calm pool deep enough for our raft or is there a new boulder in it? Small changes can make a big difference in river-running success and safety.   

ESG and Impact analytics function similarly because every organization is a changing and dynamic environment. We analyze the river – oh, I mean the data – to identify the small changes that can make a big difference to a company’s future success and safety. It is also about looking downstream and identifying both risks to avoid and opportunities to use the power of the water to push us where we want to go in terms of making a sustainable and successful company. 

Challenge the currents

Whitewater rafting was an essential part of my development and remains a part of my life. Being on the water keeps me focused and reminds me of what’s important in both life and business. It’s not for everyone, but if you ever need a guide, be sure to call me. I’ll meet you at the put-in Limestone Rapid on the Kern River and take you through.

Co-Founder & CEO
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