by Dan Lewis
Leadership is a touchy topic, particularly on trips with peers. When
you sign up for a guided tour, it’s pretty straight forward—the
guide leads, the people follow! But when a bunch of friends get together
to paddle, chaos can ensue. People’s egos can kick in, or their
issues with authority figures can sometimes create a complex and unpleasant
situation. I offer the following as a starting point for discussing
the issue of leadership in peer groups.
I believe any group needs some amount of communication in order to
function collectively rather than as just a bunch of individuals. If
people’s skills and experience levels are appropriate to the
paddling conditions, then not much is required in the form of leadership.
A simple ‘what shall we do tomorrow?’ discussion the evening
before might suffice to outline the route options, the likely weather
conditions, and the group’s desires.
As groups get larger, or there is a wider range of abilities present,
there might need to be more effort put into crafting group decisions
that meet everyone’s needs and are appropriate to their abilities.
You need an experienced paddler who can help to outline options and
draw out people’s desires and concerns.
What is an appropriate form of leadership in a group of peers? We
used to talk about the three styles of leadership: authoritarian, democratic,
and laissez-faire. Nowadays we also talk about a fourth style, namely
consensus, which is my preferred approach. Let’s take a look
at each of these.
Authoritarian leadership is only really needed when things start
to go wrong. There is not enough time when the poop hits the fan to
a touchy-feely discussion about what to do. Someone needs to take
charge, and tell people what to do. The key with this type of leadership
to use it only when absolutely necessary.
The reality is, when push comes to shove, the person who truly does
have what it takes to be a leader will probably take charge. The most
experienced paddler might not be the best leader. They might be busy
performing rescues, tows, etc., while someone with better leadership
qualities (loud voice, good verbal skills, big-picture thinking, a ‘people
person’, ability to delegate) is calling the shots. Sometimes
the true leader of a group is lurking in the background, un-acknowledged.
It is healthy for a group to agree in advance who will be in charge
if things get out of hand. The worst case scenario is two people with
differing opinions, both trying to take charge during a mishap.
Democratic leadership is a bit old school. Basically, you vote, and
the majority rules. This can work in situations where a consensus is
not easy to reach, as long as the decision is not going to create a
safety issue. It just doesn’t make sense to vote on whether or
not to do a crossing, if one ormore group members are saying they won’t
be able to make it! But if people are tired and the outcome just isn’t
that important, voting can work great (‘Shall we have chili tonight
and pasta tomorrow, or pasta tonight and chili tomorrow?’).
Laissez-faire leadership (come-whatmay; no-one in charge) is something
I’ve never really liked. One experience in particular convinced
me. While paddling with a couple of friends, I got the feeling they
didn’t appreciate my attempts to provide leadership at times
when I felt we needed it. So I backed off, without announcing my intent
to do so. One paddler, a beginner, got into conditions way over her
head. I kept wondering why she was not asking us to turn around. Meanwhile,
she was wondering why I was not insisting we turn around on her behalf,
as I obviously had better judgement and the conditions were clearly
too much for her.
She finally freaked out and was barely able to turn around in the
huge swells. I vowed then and there to not let myself get into a situation
like that again. Since then I’ve always been careful to have
discussions with groups of peers about who is in charge, what commitments
we’re making to each other about staying together, and when to
Consensus is a newer form of leadership. Using this method the group
attempts to craft decisions which meet the needs of all group members.
In order to work, consensus needs a commitment by group members to
participate in decisions, and to be honest about their true desires
and concerns. You may not get everything what you want in a consensus
decision, but voicing your opinion helps to shape the result. The
decisions might not be perfect for everyone, but at the end of the
answer the key question, Can we live with this decision?
Another key to making consensus work is to create an atmosphere of
respect in the group. The strongest voices tend to be those who are
ready and eager to get going, but you need to listen to those who are
being quiet. It isn’t easy to be the one who says ‘don’t
think we should do this’.
If the group isn’t open to hearing this message, you may later
find out, while towing someone halfway across a channel, that they
knew before they left they wouldn’t be able to make it, but were
afraid to ruin everyone’s day by telling them so! A quick round,
where each group member gets to speak uninterrupted, is a good way
to make sure all voices are heard.
Some of my favorite trips are with a small group of friends who have
a similar level of skill. We all know where we are, where we’re
heading, and what we’re out there to do (bag miles, toodle, boulder-bash,
lie on the beach, or whatever). We could all do it alone, but we have
chosen to share the experience together.
On the other hand, I’ve paddled in situations like that where,
without some preagreed commitments (stay together but if you do want
to split up, don’t take off without letting us know) chaos has
ensued. Take the time to talk frankly with your paddling partners about
leadership and you will be a stronger team!
Dan Lewis writes a regular column for WaveLength
Tofino sea kayaking article about leadership on a kayak trip. Written by Tofino kayak guide Dan Lewis for Tofino Time Magazine.