Cottage Thinking 1: Leadership in a Canoe


Getting away for a little bit of “cottage time” always sets my thinking moving in a different direction. It usually takes a few days for the fog to clear and my mind to quiet down enough to appreciate the beauty that is northern Ontario. It didn’t take the boys long to settle in and connect with the friends that they met here last year and, short of appearing at the door around mealtimes, they have been lost in adventures for the past three days.

So it was important that my suggestion to embark on our traditional “first-family-canoe-ride-of-the-season” came early enough in the day to meet with the greatest amount of enthusiasm from the greatest number of people.

There is always a silent tension between Zoe and I—perhaps it’s more imagined than real—around who should be in the back of the canoe. Zoe definitely has the greatest amount of experience in most things having to do with the outdoors. Growing up in a Scouting family has provided her with insights and expertise on everything from proper packing techniques to effective campfire setting. So, this year, I immediately went to the front of the vessel, allowing Zoe to take full control of our impending voyage.

So, facing forward, with little to do then paddle, it wasn’t long into our trip across the lake that I found my mind wandering, finally landing on the idea that the act of canoeing might provide an interesting way to think about organizational leadership.

Often, we think of leaders as being the ones who are out front, encouraging folks to follow along. They are the visionaries, the ones that have a clear sense of direction and the are able to identify the targets for which the crew needs to aim if things are going to go as planned.

In a canoe, however, the positioning is substantially different. The leader—the one who has the role of steering—is in the rear position, while the bow paddler is primarily responsible for supplying power. A well-executed voyage depends on a clear understanding (and acceptance!) of these roles. Standing back on shore, it’s beautiful to watch canoes go by where the team is working in tandem. It’s also amusing to witness those situations where a power struggle is working against efficiency and enjoyment. (I think that a short canoe trip would be a perfect first date.)

In exploring the metaphor a little more, elements other than leadership “stance” begin to emerge.

On this morning’s trip, my position in the canoe forced me to give over a great deal of control. It became clear that, if we got off course, it would be Zoe that would make the correction. But it also became important that we communicated with each other about the rhythm of our work. On the trip out into the lake, we had a nice breeze at our backs and it was easy for Zoe to allow me to set the pace. She developed a pace that resonated with mine.

On our return trip, however, the wind had picked up a little and was now providing a significant amount of resistance. A little less relaxed, Zoe had to be very clear on the horizon points to which we needed to be heading and what I was responsible for doing should we stray off course.

There was also the question of what to do with our extra person-power. Both Luke and Liam wanted to actively participate and, again, it became Zoe’s role to use their respective strengths in order to balance both the weight and the energy that the boys brought to the team.

This is the fourth year in a row that we’ve attempted this type of canoe adventure and I have to admit that we’re getting better at coordinating our efforts and understanding our roles. And this year, assuming the front position in the canoe afforded me the opportunity to find some insights about leadership in a rather context.

Next: Rocking the Boat…


One response to “Cottage Thinking 1: Leadership in a Canoe”

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