Eight Leadership Lessons Learned on a Raft in the Amazon

Jorge had represented his country of Ecuador in several international whitewater rafting competitions. Although I didn’t know this when my family jumped into the raft with him on a recent vacation to the Amazon basin, I quickly saw not only his rafting skills, but his leadership skills, too.

Here are eight leadership lessons from Jorge’s leadership that we can apply in our worlds:

  1. Plan the work and work the plan. Jorge and the rafting company had everything planned, organized and ready when we arrived for our adventure: truck to transport us, life jackets, paddles, keep-dry sack and the all-important lunch cooler.
  2. Set and manage expectations. They told us right away – and showed us on a map – where we were going, how we’d get there, how long we’d be in the river, when we’d take a break, and when we’d finish. And they fielded questions along the way. We much more readily followed them into the jungle when they helped us know what to expect.
  3. Set aggressive goals but minimize risk. Taking inexperienced rafters through class three rapids after a heavy rain was risky but doable. Our skilled leaders took two boats, good equipment and prepared us for worst-case scenarios to minimize our risk of getting hurt or stranded.
  4. Communicate clear instructions. Jorge told us we needed to know five paddling commands: 1) forward, 2) backward, 3) stop, 4) inside [i.e., get inside, on the floor of the boat], and 5) high five. He kept it simple and he took two minutes instead of two hours to demonstrate and explain.
  5. Practice and get feedback. We practiced these five commands before we ever got into the water. And we practiced again in smooth waters, with Jorge watching and advising until we got them right. Then in midst of the rapids, he reminded us and encouraged us – confidently and enthusiastically – when we needed it to make sure we executed. All this helped us perform well when it counted.
  6. Lead the way into fun and adventure. Jorge deliberately led us into the more difficult sections of the river, pointing the boat to ensure whoever he targeted got drenched. His playful and adventurous approach made the trip interesting and fun, yet he knew our limits and didn’t push us too hard. At our lunch stop, another group of rafters came by, and he secretly put a big rock in their boat as a prank.
  7. Celebrate along the way and at the end. Every time we successfully navigated a difficult stretch of rapids, Jorge shouted, “High five!” This was our signal to raise and slap our paddles together. Not only was that a fun (and inexpensive) celebratory reward, but it also made me think about what, “High five!” opportunities I miss with teams I lead.
  8. Stay positive. While preparing us for worst case scenarios like falling out of the boat or tipping, Jorge always talked openly but positively. He stressed, “Do this,” instead of telling us critically, “Don’t do that.” And he always suggested clear helpful actions. Even though the weather was cold and rainy at first, his warm and sunny attitude helped us have a blast despite less than ideal circumstances.

Even if you won’t be rafting on the Amazon soon, I hope you have a chance to apply some of Jorge’s leadership lessons in whatever adventure and rapids you’re facing.

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Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. As a leadership consultant and executive coach, he helps senior corporate leaders and their teams effectively navigate the rapids in their adventures. You can reach him at jbaker@people-results.com or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.