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Paddling in Organizational Whitewater: Is it Technical Skills or Wisdom that you Need to Lead?

November 26, 2009

Updated May 13, 2014

The past three-plus years as Canada and the United States have slowly emerged from the 2008-09 Great Recession have been a tough workout for people trying to cope with upheaval in organizations: increased workloads, new technologies to adopt and understand, global competition from emerging economies, the outflow of corporate knowledge from retiring Baby Boomers, trying to balance the demands of parenting and helping ageing parents, and the list goes on. For those in managerial positions, attempting to function as good leaders during this turbulence is especially stressful.

There’s no shortage of advice from the experts and the countless writers on leadership. Everyone has their own angle or perspective. My purpose in writing this post is to zoom in on one particular aspect of leading people during what I’ll call (as have others) organizational whitewater. I’ll use one analogy to (hopefully) get my point home.

First, I’ll take a moment to speak to the issue of how new university graduates from business schools have been set up for failure as leaders when they enter the real world. While a few management writers over the past few years have noted this problem, McGill University management guru Henry Mintzberg has consistently hammered away at it. Management and leadership are intertwined, and Mintzberg explains that leaders cannot be “trained” in MBA programs; it comes only with experience – falling down, picking yourself up, learning from the experience, and then moving forward.

What has occurred in the business world is that new grads don’t possess the contextual knowledge and life experiences to necessarily handle complex problems. Yes, they have acquired technical skills and a foundation for building their careers, but to say that they’re ready for dealing effectively with inter-related issues affecting, for example, suppliers, customer needs, unions, staff relationships, foreign partners, and production schedules is unrealistic.

One of Mintzberg’s big beefs with business schools is their heavy reliance on the use of case studies. This artificial reality in his view gives graduates a false sense of capability. Learning through experience is what counts.

I’ll provide an analogy that may help drive Mintzberg’s point home.

In my younger years (30s and 40s) I was very heavy into outdoor recreation. One activity I loved was whitewater canoeing (I tried kayaking but didn’t like it as much). I was fortunate to have excellent instructors, fellows in the 40s, who had been paddling for over 20 years. They were masters at what they did. It was inspiring to watch them navigate whitewater, displaying not just power but more importantly grace and wisdom. It’s not about brute strength when whitewater canoeing or kayaking. Obviously, a certain measure of technical skills is required to become proficient in the sport, but it’s only one component of a bigger picture.

The same applies to organizations. A manager cannot expect to just force his or her ideas and will upon others. While technical skills are important, such as what was learned at business school (e.g., accounting, quantitative methods and marketing), to effectively lead people requires accumulated knowledge and wisdom.

One of the most important things I learned from my canoeing instructors was that while you could learn technical skills fairly quickly, it took years and years to build a knowledge base from your experiences. For example, there have been numerous news stories on young paddlers (typically males) who became technically proficient in handling a canoe or kayak but ran into serious problems when they got in over their heads. They didn’t understand well enough how to read a river or to take the time to map out a route, including identifying hazards (e.g, partially submerged logs). Patience is what’s critical here, and a measure of humbleness knowing that Mother Nature deserves respect.

Unfortunately, each year canoeists and kayakers drown or become paraplegics or quadriplegics when they exceed their technical capabilities. And it’s often the less experienced who end up in these situations. The message my instructors gave their students was respect the river because it is unforgiving. The same applies to organizations, especially during times of economic stress.

In the context of today’s organizational whitewater, the message for new and less experienced leaders is to be humble, watch and listen for the signals, and learn from your experiences. Of particular importance is to practice patience. Do this and you’ll emerge at the other end of the whitewater a better leader and intact.



Photos by Jim Taggart (Penobscot River, Maine).


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7 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2016 4:04 pm

    I just came across this article and find it absolutely fitting to the new guides/students that we train to work for us. Your advice to the less experienced to be humble, watch and listen for the signals, and learn from their experiences is part of our summer training goals. I thoroughly enjoyed this and your analogies! Sincerely, Jessica – Adventure Coordinator Northeast Whitewater http://www.northeastwhitewater.com

    • January 11, 2016 4:25 pm

      Thanks for your positive feedback and comments, Jessica. I invite you to share this leadership post with others in your network.

  2. December 6, 2009 4:08 am

    A couple years ago the head of our school died just a couple days before the graduation of the Grade 12 students. Notes were found on his desk of what he had planned to say, and his remarks were read out posthumously.

    He told the graduates that life will knock you down again and again. He said he hoped each and every one of the graduates would have, or develop, the fortitude not to let life beat them, but to be able to pick themselves up again and again, because that is what success in life takes. I think it is though these repeated experiences that we develop wisdom, as you have indicated above, by pointing out that the new business school graduates have not yet been knocked down, not yet tested.

    Mary Mimouna

    • December 6, 2009 1:20 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing this and the lessons from the head of the school.

  3. November 26, 2009 5:38 pm

    Thanks Susan. On another trip to Central Maine (God’s Country), I went on a day-long whitewater rafting trip. A very different experience from canoeing. But I developed a lot of respect for the river guides who have a lot of responsibility and require excellent people skills, technical skills, and knowledge on how to read and navigate rapids.

  4. November 26, 2009 5:23 pm

    Great analogy and great photos. As you explained so well, there’s simply no substitute for hands-on experience.

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