Eight Questions to Assess the Quality of Your Leadership

Last week our family had the opportunity to run the Salmon River in Idaho for a family vacation.  My oldest son has been running the river as a guide this summer; consequently, we were invited to go on a trip with him. I was excited at the prospect of this adventure given that I had been a white water guide myself in the Grand Canyon over 25 years ago. Previously, I have had to put sharing river rafting with my family on hold until my children were older, but now everyone has grown enough that we could go together.

We had a marvelous experience with the others in the group and enjoyed the beautiful outdoors, starlit nights, and exciting whitewater. I loved running the river in my youth because of the challenge of navigating the river, meeting new people, and learning things about myself. This trip was no different and provided many lessons in leadership that are worth sharing.

Looking back on this recent experience on the river, some questions came to mind that I would invite you to consider as you reflect on the effectiveness of your leadership.

1. Do you seek feedback from those with whom you work? I was surprised during our river trip when my son asked me how I thought he was doing. Most children would not usually ask for a critique from their parents. I took the opportunity to give him some tips that would help him to maneuver his boat more effectively.

Usually we wait to receive feedback, rather than actually seeking it out. Many seem to take the position that no news is good news, so they miss the opportunity to identify what they are doing well and what they could improve. Seeking feedback signals to your superiors that you care enough about your work to grow and develop while meeting their expectations.  

2. Do you have the foresight to anticipate what is needed and take initiative to accomplish your goals? Some of the feedback I gave my son on our trip concerned this very topic. I coached my son to be more aware of his boat in the current and to look downstream to anticipate what it would do to his boat in the space and time he had. Like learning to drive a car, it takes a while to learn to recognize that the vehicle is somewhat an extension of yourself. This knowledge is important when contemplating how fast your car is going and what you can do with it given the time and space you have to complete a maneuver. It is the same on the river—looking ahead and anticipating what could happen would allow my son to consider and make needed course corrections before a danger became unavoidable.

Sometimes we become so focused on completing the projects or tasks at hand that we fail to look downstream and see where we are headed. Anticipating where we are going and what we really want allows us the opportunity to take initiative and make necessary course corrections before a crisis arises.  

3. Do you make decisions and stay committed to them? On the second day of our river trip two of my children, ages eight and fourteen, asked me to ride in the paddle boat with them. On one leg of our journey, our guide had us entering a rapid on the right side of the river. Just at the top of the rapid, she changed her mind and started yelling, “Go left, left, left! Paddle for your lives!” We did as we were told, but before we could get far enough to the left, we washed over a huge boulder, got dumped out of the boat, and ended up swimming through the rapid. One of the cardinal rules of the river is, “Once you are committed to a path through the rapids, you must stay the course.” Unfortunately, our guide didn’t follow that rule, which could have put us all in danger and led to a less-than-desirable outcome.

Many leaders are afraid to make a decision for fear of making the wrong decision. Or, they don’t stay the course of the decision they have made, second-guessing themselves or changing their minds without having all the facts. They will abandon ship or try to make course corrections before the results have been received. Don’t be afraid to plan, evaluate, decide, and check the quality of your results before you decide to change direction.

4. Do you make course corrections when things don’t go well? A couple of hours later while still in the paddle boat, we entered a large rapid and hit the first wave dead in the center. As we shot up into the air, the boat angled to the right as we came down. We failed to re-center the boat quickly enough to hit the next wave head-on. Because we were off-center, the force of the wave flipped our boat right over and we ended up swimming through another rapid.

Our results should teach us what changes we should make if we don’t get the results we want. We cannot assume things will go differently if we don’t change anything. It’s important to learn to make mistakes quickly and learn from them. The challenge then becomes to not make the same mistakes again.

5. When you give direction, do you take the time to explain why? In camp, our trip leader was often quite forceful. She was constantly barking orders to my son about what she wanted him to do next. He came and talked to me about it, and so I told him he should go ask her why she gave direction the way she did. He talked to her about it and she apologized. She explained that she felt like she could not rely on the other crew members as much as she could him. So when she wanted things done, she counted on him to do things quickly and without discussion. He told her that he would have appreciated understanding what was driving her behavior. 

There are two important elements to this story: first, my son assumed ill-intent on the part of his manager. If he had not talked to her about the situation, he would not have understood why she was acting the way she did and he would have continued to harbor bad feelings toward her. Second, she didn’t take the time to explain the “why” or rationale behind her behavior. As a leader it’s important to take the time to explain the reasoning behind your requests and to not assume that people will understand the importance or necessity of doing something a certain way.   

6. Do you recognize those who work hard and do a good job? On our trip, I didn’t hear much of this among the crewmates or even from the leader. This seems like common sense, but it may not be as intuitive to some people as it is to others.

It is important to make the time to recognize what people are doing well and encourage them when they are struggling. This requires conscious attention to what people are doing and deliberate effort to make mention of it to them. Performance improves when people’s actions are acknowledged and appreciated. Calling out another’s effort says to them that you notice and value what they are doing.

7. Do you make things harder than they need to be? Every evening when we stopped for the day, the crew set up the toilet downstream with a wonderful view of the river. On one occasion, the crew set up the facilities at what seemed to be a quarter of a mile down-river. In addition to the distance, the terrain was also very challenging. Given that there were a number of people in their 70’s who might struggle after dark to reach those facilities, I and a few others requested the crew move the toilet a little closer to camp. They complied with our request.

It’s important to evaluate what we are asking people to do.  Is the effort worth the results achieved?  Is there a better way? Sometimes what we ask people to do requires more of an effort than what the results are actually worth. We ought to be constantly assessing the effectiveness of what we are doing so we can help others to be successful.   

8. Do you take the time to enjoy the adventure? After the second day of our trip, any time I asked my eight-year old if she was enjoying the trip, she said, “No!” As I probed deeper, she expressed that she really started to worry when her brother suddenly started rowing faster. I learned that the trauma of swimming through two rapids had tainted her view of the experience. So I switched to asking about more specific aspects of the trip. I asked her if she liked the food, the stars, the swimming, or the friends she was making. Then she always responded in the affirmative, for which I was relieved.

Sometimes we let a bad experience influence our perception of the whole. Our work can be demanding and difficult, but unless we take the time to focus on what we are learning and the good we are doing and experiencing, our negative perceptions can get the best of us and override any positive aspects.

Running the river can be exhilarating, renewing, and highly enlightening. I enjoyed this trip with my family and appreciated the reminder that there are a number of specific leadership behaviors that will not only insure our success but also insure the success of others.  

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