tofino kayaking: leadership


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 have 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 is 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 bail-out.

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 day should 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
Paddling Magazine. Email:

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Tofino sea kayaking article about leadership on a kayak trip. Written by Tofino kayak guide Dan Lewis for Tofino Time Magazine.

tofino time july 2004

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