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Lessons in Leadership: What NOT to do...from a Canoe!

By: Eileen McDargh, CSP, CPAE

Eileen McDargh is a Hall of Fame professional speaker, management consultant, resiliency expert and top thought-leader in leadership.  Visit The Resilient Spirit at to get her free quarterly e-zine, read her blog and articles.  Read the testimonials from hundreds of satisfied clients from all over the globe and hire her to keynote at your next meeting or facilitate your next retreat.

When it comes to fishing, my husband takes the lead. But his lack of leadership ability in a recent canoe trip on the Boundary Waters in Northern Minnesota offered wonderful lessons on how leaders can unknowingly screw up.
  1. Assign responsibility without authority.

    Bill insisted that in order to cast his fishing line, he needed to be in the back of the canoe. I was to paddle as he cast and trolled his lure. The only challenge is that the ability to steer a two-person canoe is handled by the person in the back. He'd shout directions to me but I had little authority over the craft. Frustrated, I wanted to turn around and whack him with the paddle.

    LESSON: If you assign someone a task, put them where they have full control to do what is required rather than hamstring them with your positional authority.

  2. Hire a skill set but don't let the employee use it.

    The Boundary Waters are comprised of many lakes connected with islands and it is frequently necessary to portage the canoe to the next lake. I have a good eye for reading navigational maps. I would identify the portage spot as we approached. On more than one occasion, Bill would insist I was wrong and we'd spend time "looking", only to return to the site I had identified. I felt like throwing the backpacks up the trail.

    LESSON: If you hire someone with a skill you don't have let them take the lead.

  3. Never believe someone closest to the problem.

    We were fishing along a rock ledge jutting out from one of the islands. Bill was a distance from me when I suddenly yelled for help. "I have a fish and I can't tighten the reel." "No," replied Bill, "You don't have a fish."  "Yes, I do. Please help me." He slowly made his way over and took the rod from my hand. A deft fisherman, he fixed the problem and to his amazement, pulled out a fish.  I wanted to hit him with it.

    LESSON: Pay attention to people down line. A removed view might very well be wrong.

  4. Practice unclear communication.

    From my weak directional paddling position Bill would also holler out a specific direction. "Head toward that tree", he'd call. Now remember he is sitting behind me. The island is covered with trees. Just what is that tree?  "The GREEN one," he'd say. " Sorry, Bill. They are ALL green!"  Since the eyes in the back of my  head were shut I couldn't see where his finger pointed.  I wanted to bite that finger.

    LESSON: Clairvoyance is not a skill set you can hire. Describe specifically what you want, andwhat you see. Bring people along into your vision.

  5. Make others bail you out of the trouble you cause. As we circled the various islands, Bill would cast toward the shore. He has a good eye for distance but on occasion his line would snag the low lying bushes and I'd have to climb out and untangle the mess. One foot almost landed on the back of a monstrous rock that moved: a moss covered snapping turtle with a shell the size of a toilet seat and jaws that could break my ankle. I screamed.

    LESSON: You can be bailed out once. But for repeated errors, get out and do it yourself.
P.S. Concerned about workplace violence? Look at my response to a person I deeply love. Consider these lessons very carefully.

© 2004 by McDargh Communications. All rights reserved. Reprints must include byline, contact information and copyright.

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