Back-Seat Driver, or Whitewater Rafting Guide?

In Oregon last week, my wife talked me into going whitewater rafting on the Rogue River, promising me that the part of the river we’d be on never got rougher than Class 3 rapids.

Which meant absolutely nothing to me. Later, I would come to understand that that the class number referred to the number of near-drowning episodes I would encounter while on the river.

But I said YES, since my wife and sister-in-law Anna love this sort of thing. Sealing the deal was when my wife’s friend, Julie, offered to serve as our river guide. Julie, I was told, recently returned from a rafting trip in Peru where she navigated Class 5+ rapids, the type of water that requires that you “thread the needle” precisely, or risk serious injury or death. 

Before pushing off into the river, Julie asked me what I knew about rafting.

“Pretend I know nothing,” I said because, well, I knew nothing.

Turns out, I may have overstated my knowledge.

I took up a position on the left front, and Anna started in the lead paddling position front right. My wife sat in the back, and Julie sat on the back wall of the raft where she could see everything down river.

Rafting–like all activities, jobs, or hobbies–has it’s own lexicon.

“Big water below! Watch the rime on the right bank so we don’t get hung up,” Julie said. “This one is going to be a bit technical, so let’s approach the tongue around the hair of the souse hole!”

Translation: You’re about to get very wet, and possibly killed.

Initially I thought that Julie had the easiest job on the raft. She was just a backseat driver who would say things like, “Full forward” or “Reverse right” or “Stop.” But as far as I could tell, she wasn’t doing any of the real work, like paddling!

Back-Seat Driver, or World-Class Guide?

As the trip continued, I realized that in every important way, Julie actually led our party like I would expect a great leader to orchestrate success at work.

A back-seat driver bellows orders from a place of relative safety. And much of what a back-seat driver says is spoken in hindsight, like “YOU SHOULD HAVE DONE IT THIS WAY…” instead of guiding you, proactively, to a place of learning and success.

A river guide practices at least 5 skills that every strong leader must demonstrate to generate strong, loyal teams capable of outstanding team results.

How many of these do you practice?

1. Leaders Face Forward.

Julie experience with Class 5+ rapids in her past got her in the position as guide, but to keep us safe meant that Julie had to keep her eyes focused in the future.

Leaders, too, use lessons learned from past experiences to help them spot patterns and trends. When leaders look ahead, they don’t see immediate challenges only, but they see the entire landscape–the social, political, regulatory, and cultural barriers that might threaten the success of any project. They then use that information to anticipate and plan for not only the current situation but also the next several patches of rough waters to come.

2. Leaders take advantages of strengths.

Julie sized up each member of our team, and she placed each one of us in a role where we could be most successful. She didn’t view us as a collective, everyone’s-the-same, but rather as unique individuals with equally unique strengths and weaknesses. She took advantages of our strengths–physical strength, rafting experience, bulk, etc.–to keep the raft afloat. She also knew the strengths of the river, and she guided us into the current so we wouldn’t have to paddle so hard. She let the strength of the current work for us.

Leaders, too, know each team member and the culture in which success occurs; then they align all parties to maximize the strengths of each.

3. Leaders navigate.

Julie didn’t paddle, but she kept her paddle in the water to navigate at all times, becoming the rudder for our watercraft. We team members provided the horsepower, but Julie applied her expertise to channel that horsepower.

Likewise, leaders avoid that erroneous assumption that they must personally be able to do the job of each person they lead. Instead, leaders know how to point the way to success by helping team members navigate obstacles, whether those obstacles are political, cultural, or technical.

4. Leaders assume risk.

Julie sent our raft into some white-knuckle currents, but she put herself at the greatest risk for danger. Sitting at the highest point of the raft wall in the back, had we hit a boulder she would have been catapulted from our craft while the rest of us likely would have fallen safely inside of the raft.

Leaders don’t see employees as expendable extras. Instead, leaders are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect their team members. This action fosters trust and loyalty, something no leader can effectively lead without!

5. Leaders reinforce.

After every challenge we encountered on the river, Julie said, “Good job.” It sounds crazy, right? I mean, had we failed to do a good job, we could have been hurt. We weren’t just paddling for Julie; we were paddling to stay afloat! But Julie said it anyway.

Leaders, too, say “Thank you” and “Nice job” and “Good work” even though employees have a vested interest–an interest called a pay check and staying employed–for doing the job.

So if you manager others, do you think they see you as a back-seat driver, or are you a world-class river guide?

0 Comments Add yours

  1. Heath Port says:

    Great post Scott. I especially like point number 3. All too often I see leaders making the mistake that they can’t be effective leaders unless they are an expert at each of their team member’s roles. I would also say that all too often organizations reward expertise with promotion to lead others without taking into consideration that person’s ability to lead others to get work done. I have seen a lot of technical experts struggle with leading a team and ultimately end up down in the weeds doing the tactical work rather than focusing each of their people’s strengths and developing their skillsets to make the team more successful over time.

    1. scottcarbonara says:

      You’re right, Heath. I often see technical professionals struggle with that need-to-be-the-SME. In many organizations, the IT staff won’t respect a CIO who doesn’t have street creds as being current on all things tech. I think it was St. Paul who said, “The foot shouldn’t be jealous of the hand.” We all have different roles, and we serve best when we serve in our areas of greatest strength.

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