American Explorers

Leading Teams in Fast Moving Water by Luke O’Neill, American Explorers, Founding Director

Let me begin by saying that I absolutely love watching the process of transforming a group of total strangers into a functioning team, especially within the span of a few hours.

For many years I had the pleasure every autumn of working with a group of forty health professionals who had enrolled in an intensive, one-year, leadership development workshop. Their year-long program kicks-off with a three-day wilderness experience in the mountains of western Maine. For the most part, they arrive as strangers to one another. After a few introductory remarks by an instructor team, the pace quickens, as participants are offered a series of successive team challenges, each one growing from the last in both size and scope.   

One year’s big first-day challenge involved constructing a Tyrolean Traverse–a technical rope and pulley system–across an impressive, fast-moving mountain stream. Each of the four, pre-selected, ten-person teams carried the technical gear to the banks of the stream along with a set of laminated instruction sheets. The goal was to transport one or more members of the team to the other side of the river within a three-hour timeframe.   

I have witnessed this scene dozens of times. Occasionally teams experience a mild breakdown. Other times, teams meet with limited success. This particular year provided a rare view of leadership.  Once on the banks of the stream, excitement levels jumped and the smell of urgency and competition filled the air. After volunteering to be the leader of the group, John opened with the following phrase in a very warm, calming tone:

“Let’s all take a few minutes to just be quiet, read our laminated instruction sheets, and try to figure out how best to communicate what we learn.”  

It was beautiful.  Instead of giving into the hysteria surrounding the size of the challenge and the tight deadline, John took a step back and gave everyone permission in his group to do the same.  Even though he had no experience with technical rope systems, John had the insight to know that successfully completing the rope bridge would depend primarily on the group’s ability to remain calm, working through the step-by-step instructions in a deliberate and supportive manner.  That single move by John instilled a sense of confidence that infected every interaction among the members of the group for the next three hours.  

As a leader, it is easy to be swept up in the swift-moving stream of competing deadlines, information overload, and endless distractions. Steering in swift water, as the river rafting professionals will tell us, is possible only when we are moving slower or faster than the water.  In John’s case, slowing down proved to be the reason for his success. Every member of John’s team crossed the river before the deadline before the other three teams had transported one.