By Thomas H. Coble     (Spring 1992)

For one month each summer, I have a unique opportunity to change out of my consultant role and into my other self, a Western Alaska wilderness river guide.

Besides the location, a wilderness river trip and a business organization have much in common. Both involve uncertainty, a variety of different people with different skills, outsides variables which were not planned for, and an element of fear. The river becomes a great metaphor for people working together, applicable even in business.

People on these river trips exhibit behavior that is less masked than I usually see when in a work environment. Let’s face it, when confronted with a difficult and even dangerous situation, the true person comes to the surface … quickly!

My role as a guide on these trips places me in an excellent position to try and meet the needs that each one of these individuals brings to the river. A role very much like every manager in every company. So, if I am trying to respond to these participants’ needs, what am I responding to?

People usually fall into different camps, ranging from very uncomfortable to extremely relaxed and at ease in the wild. What these different groups need from me differs greatly and what I attempt to give them differs greatly. Someone new to the outdoors requires a lot of attention and hand-holding, direction on what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Someone with a great deal of experience would be insulted if I tried to direct them in this manner.

As a guide, I am trying to respond to the needs of each individual. This is what leadership is all about, responding to the “needs” of the person following! As you might guess, even a guide can sometimes miss the mark or misread a person, this only adds to the chaos of the situation. It is difficult when the pressure is on, time is short, something has to happen fast, or things are becoming dangerous. Planning and clear roles certainly help.

Future articles in “View From the Middle of the Boat will identify and discuss leadership lessons seen out on the river. We will see opportunities where leadership and followership can be applied back in business situations to a more productive solution.

In the next episode, we will deal with bears in camp. Do you have those disruptive creatures running amok in your organization?