Lead Through Change Like a Whitewater Boss

Lead Through Change Like a Whitewater Boss

In 1994 I went on my first whitewater rafting trip. Our guide, Harry, was aptly named. Standing tall and furry, he directed us to a practice raft where he barked out his safety brief. Once he had struck the fear of God in us, we boarded the old school bus and headed for the take-in point. As the bus teetered along a road on the edge of a cliff, we could look down at the raging water and our impending doom. We cinched our helmets a little tighter and clenched our paddles a little harder.

Our trip down the river was not the adventure I’d hoped for. That’s not to say it wasn’t treacherous; I think we spent equal amounts of time under water as above it. It’s just that Harry’s one goal seemed to be to get to the take-out point as soon as possible. He’d have a fit if someone weren’t paddling just so, and during one smooth part of the river, we just sat and baked as Harry sat silent. Our final rapid — and our most dangerous one (it was called “Hell Hole” for crying out loud) almost did us in. I’m pretty sure we got through it only because Harry’s shouting, coupled with the sort of energy that can only be summoned when your life flashes before your eyes, slowed the current just enough to allow our survival. By the time we finally made it to the take-out point, we all agreed that we’d had our fill of whitewater rafting. For good.

One year later, my boss took my department on a team building trip.
Whitewater rafting.

Same river, same outfitter, same everything. Except this year, our guide’s name was Heidi. She was roughly a third the size of Harry, and I couldn’t imagine how we’d make it down the raging river. Heidi’s first order of business was to do the typical team building thing and ask each of us what success looked like. “Survival” was my answer. She then conducted the safety brief, we boarded the bus, and took off teetering down the road and along the cliff where we could once again see our impending doom. The river seemed to be raging even worse than the year before.

At the take-in point, Heidi helped us carry the raft down to the water. It seemed a little lighter, and I thought: Harry didn’t help us. As we started down the river, Heidi talked to us about the rich native American history of the area, pointing out various rocks and features and discussing how the Olympics were coming soon to this very river.  Harry hadn’t done that.  As we approached each rapid, Heidi would ask us how we wanted to approach it… as a Class 3 (pretty exciting) or a Class 4 (crazy water explosions). As we made it through each rapid, we would celebrate by raising our paddles together in the center of the raft and chanting loudly.  Harry hadn’t done that. During the calm part, Heidi let us float alongside the raft on our backs and sing songs and hang on to a little rope — instead of bake in the sun.  Harry hadn’t done that. Fool.

As we approached the final, most dangerous rapid, Heidi looked at me and said: “I can see you like to live on the edge. I want you to ride the bull.”  I looked around, not knowing what she was talking about.  “That means you put your paddle on the floor, climb up on the front of the raft, hang on with one hand, and hold on for dear life as we paddle you through Hell Hole.”

Harry hadn’t done that,
thank God!

If it hadn’t been for my boss being in the raft, and everyone chanting Chuck! Chuck! Chuck! there’s no way on earth I’d have done it. But there I was, climbing on to the front of the raft, with Niagara Falls (it seemed) just ahead.

I swear I descended clear to Hades during that trip through Hell Hole. I swallowed a good bit of the river, and enjoyed a second viewing of my life flashing before my eyes, before my raft team, led by Heidi, pushed me through to the other side and to the take-out point. I think you could have heard our chanting and cheering one hundred miles away. It felt once in a lifetime to me, and it was.

Now. What does this have to do with leading through change?

Think about this: It was the same river, the same outfitter, the same time of year, the same number of people in my raft, and yet my two experiences were night and day. What was the difference?

My guide, of course.

Think of the river as change. Sometimes it’s turbulent, sometimes calm… but it’s always moving. It doesn’t care if you’re prepared or if you don’t like it. It can be dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s governed by natural laws… just like change.

Here’s the question: If you’re leading your team through change, how will they consider you at the take-out point… on the other side of that change?  Will they never want to go again, or will they want to do it all over again – as long as you are the guide?

As a change leader (which is any leader these days), you can be intentional about how you’re navigating your team through the rapids. The river will rage at times either way, but the way you approach each challenge and the way you engage the team will ultimately determine their ability to navigate it well and invest discretionary effort in doing it again. And there will always be more change.

What kind of guide will you be?  More like Harry, or more like Heidi?

Oh, and the photo above? Yes, that’s me. Heading into Hell Hole, with my new hero, Heidi, guiding the way.


Chuck Allen is a VP Realm responsible for employee engagement and change communications. His extensive background in executive coaching and leadership has lead him to conclusions about life and work. “I work with leaders who want to leave less life on the table and build whole lives worth emulating.”

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