Rules of the River

Rules of the River

I had a reunion with an old college friend of mine named Shaw. We’d been on many adventures together – exploring in Peru, hiking in Corsica, sailing in Maine. Unfortunately, we had only two days, and we had to settle for an adventure relatively close to Boston. We picked a canoe trip down the Saco River in New Hampshire.

We were shuttled to our put-in point by Dave, the garrulous owner of the canoe rental company. It was a hot June morning. Our wet bags contained rain gear, sleeping bags, tent, and enough food for our entire reunion class.

We pulled into the quick-moving silver waters of the Saco, with stately Mt. Washington sheathed in clouds above us. I jumped into the bow, Shaw into the stern. The bowman leads the boat. The stern’s job is to follow the bowman’s lead. This is important to know for what happened later.

We barreled along the river, navigating the Class II riffles with relative ease. There were many boulders to avoid, but the river’s currents were not too treacherous. The greatest danger was from trees, uprooted and tossed into the river by winter storms, sucking the currents underneath them.

We rounded a curve in the river. I looked ahead. The river’s pace quickened as the channel narrowed. Suddenly, I saw a major problem. A birch tree lay horizontally across the river between two rocks. “Tree,” I shouted. There was two feet of clearance beneath the tree. “We can make it.”

“No,” called Shaw. “Head for the beach. Beach!”

“We can make it!” I shouted. “Dig, dig!”

With my determination to go for it, and Shaw’s desire to exercise caution, the canoe responded accordingly. The stern swung around into the current, heading straight toward the tree. Scared of hitting the tree backwards, I executed a deep draw stroke and swung the bow in the right direction. But not enough. We came onto the tree sideways.

“Duck,” I shouted. We both flattened ourselves into the bottom of the canoe. I held my breath. The tree cleared my nose by inches. I listened for a scrape or a thump from the stern. Hearing none, I exhaled. We’d made it!

I stuck up my head and looked at Shaw, who burst out laughing. “That was classic!” he shouted. “A textbook example of what not to do!”

We high-fived and paddled to a sandy beach where we stretched our legs and replayed what had happened. “Our mistake is we didn’t work out our ground rules in advance,” I said. “We need a rule that if one of us wants to stop, we have to stop – no questions asked.”

“I agree,” said Shaw. “And when in doubt, revert to rule number one.”

We proceeded to navigate several more treacherous spots with no mishaps. Later, while cooking steaks over our campfire, I recounted for Shaw the hundreds of times I’d worked with teams and helped them develop their ground rules.

“It’s a key thing for effective teams to do,” I said. “And it’s interesting and ironic that we overlooked that crucial step.”

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Eric Douglas

Eric Douglas is the senior partner and founder of Leading Resources Inc., a consulting firm that focuses on developing high-performing organizations. For more than 20 years, Eric has successfully helped a wide array of government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and corporations achieve breakthroughs in performance. His new book The Leadership Equation helps leaders achieve strategic clarity, manage change effectively, and build a leadership culture.

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