Do we want leaders really?

-- Last Updated: Nov-30-04 11:32 AM EST --

One topic that people really have diverse views about here and among outdoor enthusiasts is whether we really accept followership repsonsibilities and whether we really accept having leaders. IMHO I wonder if part of the problem with many topics posted is a sea change in that we no longer accept leadership from anyone, regardless of how able, how discrete, how experienced, how skillful etc. (Not getting into the qualification thing here at all and not that everyone should always want a leader, but in situations in which we are not all experts and the conditions have significant risk, isn't it a generally good idea for someone to really have great judgment, experience and skills with a group present?)

To avoid calamity both the leader and followers (active thinking as a leader themselves) must employ good judgment, i.e., the making of cautious, responsible decisions involving the optimum use of critical thinking (from Don Allen, "Don't Die On The Mountain).

IMO what many want is for someone to do the work but not have any real authority to make important, critical, timely, and unpopular decisions. What many club members also don't even want a democratic and or consulting type leader as well. It is like it is too much trouble, takes too much time.

This results in many club outings with a leader who, if they live up to our expectations, will produce the following situations:

Absent leadership: failing to forsee critical situations and take preventive and timely action. Lassez faire leaders are prone to this if they only go by consensus and do not actively intervene with their own judgment.

Impotent leadership: Failure to act in a meaningful way by not requiring others to deal with critical conditions, or only doing so in a delayed way.

Authoritarian leadership: private decisions, no input, issues orders, non-emergencies, no need for this given. They will tolerate this because it takes less work, as long as this leader does not deal with big issues like equipment, skills, etc.

Why might this be that so few of us see the need for leaders who embody what is best about leadership, fine critical judment, ability to have everyone think as a leader themselves, decisions with the input of all who are constructive, willingness to do the unpopular, calm in emergencies.

For me, I watch a person who says they are a leader, and if they show these qualities, they have my trust and I feel responsible to add my good judgment to it. If they don't I won't follow nor join them again. What I don't get is why so few people today seem to reject all but the "social facilitator" type leader, who IMHO is really an absent impotent in a crisis leader.

Nop! I’m my own leader and follower

Me too sometimes

– Last Updated: Nov-30-04 11:37 AM EST –

Thanks iceman, always helps to see one's own post in another's view. Yes, me also, and not suggesting a form of followership that is like a sheep. In fact, the only type of leader I accept and want is someone who wants all the good information present, and from everyone.

I am definitely not suggesting everyone have a leader for their activities either. Just trying to look at why beginners go out in groups, take huge risks, but want others to do the work, act like they want a leader but really don't want one to assess what is happening.

An interesting sociological observation!

I made a similar comment in another thread, saying that I have adapted my leadership style to the fact that most people in the area have a problem with authority. I now end up being the guy with the chart and plan, who can bail your sorry butt out of trouble, should you find it. That is, on the few occasions I actually “lead” anything anymore.

Part of it, I think, is the fact that paddling is seen as one of the last bastions of freedom in life. There’s very little intrusion by government (Well, for the moment, but that’s another thread), lots of places to go, and the difficulty level can usually be chosen by a knowledgeable paddler. People just want to be left alone for a few hours a week, and simply be. They can totally disconnect from everyday drudgery, and be in a place that they can’t find anywhere else. Cyclists, hikers, and runners would probably say the same. When I want that feeling, I paddle solo. No politics, no decisionmaking squabbles, no expectations.

Adding an overbearing leader to paddling kills the joy of it for many folks, IMO.


from a whitewater perspective
i’ve never been on a trip where there was a designated “leader”, but it’s common for the person with the most experience on the run to give advice on common lines through the rapids etc. when i first started creeking, i would ask those with more experience for advice, but we were all expected to be able to be a “leader” in a rescue situation. now that i have more experience, and often find myself “leading” a group down a run, it is still an expectation for all to be able to direct safety if the so-called leader is further away from the situation than others(or is the rescuee). I guess there are sometimes leaders by default if one person has more experience, but often people have similar abilities and experience placing everyone on equal footing. just my experience. haven’t done much sea kayaking with large groups.

Rugged individualism has its limits…
While I agree that going on a trip with a domineering “martinet” is no fun, I have ABSOLUTELY no problem deferring to someone else’s greater experience. I don’t want to get hurt, or do something stupid that’ll get somebody else hurt, either.

Our own group of friends seems to take on leadership as needed, with each offering advice according to their own experience levels.

Of course, we’re all friends who have known each other for years. Do the kinds of groups you’re talking about contain “outsiders”, or something?

You Got It…

– Last Updated: Nov-30-04 12:23 PM EST –

Social dynamics take time to work out. I would rather not spend too much energy on it on my (precious) spare time. I rather paddle with a group of "equals." Equals mean that folks have the ability to contribute to decisions and actions.

It takes time for a group to evolve into a working team where members trust each other implicitly. It must start of with the shared goal in the first place and the share values as well. So right off the bat, the venue already shapes some of the types of paddlers involved. In large club trips, I have found divergence or indifference more the norm than the exception. A "leader" is needed to pull the pieces together. It's a lot of work and I can respect the tough job it is. At the same time, I can also say it's not what I look for in paddling buddies. Neither "leaders" nor "followers", but "partners."



– Last Updated: Nov-30-04 12:23 PM EST –

I am a rugged individualist and go for the freedom as well, and just as you all say, has its limits sometimes.

Yes, most of the problems come from folks with little or no experience with outdoors, some with a little got away with a large helping of dumb luck to not kill themselves, and now join with an attitude of OK take me but tell me nothing or you are a control freak, ya can't enjoy yourself. I think, fine, go kill yourself on your own time, no problem.

Just feels sort of severe but slowly learning on this forum to head out with more like minded folks who either know how to use decent judgment or fold into a group of people who do and value learning it for themselves. Less and less interested in putting up with, "educating" tolerating and etc those who don't. I can be very patient, tactful, polite, etc. but many folks can only be included if one is willing to stop using your own good judgment and go along with dumb risky things.

Like several people who instead of getting off the water for 20 minutes, easy take out, chose to paddle in a heavy severe thunderstorm in open water saying hey live a little what is your problem, more dangerous on shore, chill out.

As sing and others are saying there really is a huge lack of shared values and goals in some of the cub activities and really it is perhaps not really a good idea leader or not, to go out as a group if one wants to rely on anything but dumb luck to get back. Shared valuse and partners looks better and better.

Big paddling groups slow down

– Last Updated: Nov-30-04 12:42 PM EST –

the learning process because the group has to adapt to its everage capabilities.
However, there are many souls out there that do not want to take the risk of the learning process by themselves. For them, I guess, a paddling group with a strong leader (who says what/how to do something) might be the way to go.

Small group of friends with no leadership but mutual agreement are quite different. In these kind of groups, we may push the evelop because there is alway a frind to help us to reach the goal. However, it is very difficult to find a couples of paddlers with similar skills, goals, and schedule. For this reason, I have to end up paddling alone. Sometimes, I get in deep troubles, but everytime, I overcome those difficulties I end up being a better paddler.


I often ‘lead’ trips which means I do
the admin stuff like scheduling and figuring out shuttles. I bring extra gear in case someone forgets something, and if someone is slow or having problems , I’ll stay close to them.That’s about all the leading most adults I paddle with will tolerate.

other side of the fence
we paddle in (mostly) open coastal conditions with serious consequence. We always deem leader and assistant, responsible for making crucial calls. They have the final say. Comes with the territory.

While the freedom of the willy/ nilly trip is enjoyed by many the safety net just isn’t there. Sure it ‘might’ be there, but I’ve seen soooo many time when it wasn’t.

Call us anal, but officially run trips in gnarly conditions is the way we do/teach.


Leadership and followers are inate
If you trust someone,then the designation of “leader” seems to just come naturally. I have been in situations where I was a follower because I had no experience and had trust in the person leading the way. On the other side of things, I have had greater experience and expected others to follow. So far in my life it has worked out. Believe me, if I did not have a great leader in my first “coastal kayaking class” then I would not be here to chat with all of you now. Next to his expertise I am a novice but I have proven that I am leader (thanks to his instructions) in several situations. Bottom line - if you are intelligent and true to yourself you are both!

I have been on only one trip with you (Jocassee fall '03 Laurel Falls trip) and I believe you were the defacto leader.

The group was all reasonably competent, I think, so each of us was ultimately responsible for our own safety. But to play devil’s advocate, lets say I was having back trouble (actually, I was). If I had needed to pull over and deal with spasms before we stopped at the peninsula prior to the last open water crossing to the ramp would anyone have known I was missing?

If there is no designated sweep, is it not possible that some of the flock can fall behind? What about a true emergency, such as someone in the water?

Personally, most of my paddling is in groups where everyone assumes risk equally. If there is a newbie, the person who invited them is ultimately responsible for their welfare, but the rest of the group is aware of the situation.

No right or wrong answer, just food for thought.


BTW, bad back or not, Laurel Falls was well worth the 14 mile paddle!

Same cat, different approach to skinning
We too paddle in open conditions and occasionally head out deliberately into the gnarly stuff. We just don’t do it in any regimented fashion.

Most of the people know who they should stay near in case anything happens, and if it’s really bad, about three quarters never even launch. We also usually will do a pre-launch briefing, but that’s about all. We take stock of who has what gear & skills, and suggest staying together. Most groups on those paddles don’t have problems staying tight, or handling adversity.

Just a different philosophy is all.


Too Much Generalizaton…

– Last Updated: Nov-30-04 2:38 PM EST –

"While the freedom of the willy/ nilly trip is enjoyed by many the safety net just isn't there. Sure it 'might' be there, but I've seen soooo many time when it wasn't."

I agree with Wayne. More important than having an "anal compulsive" leader, is having a group with a smiliar agenda, skill level and mutual understanding.

While I wasn't at the various trips with bad events or disasters, I have read or heard about some involved with "led" groups.


Who is “We”?

– Last Updated: Dec-01-04 1:18 PM EST –

There is a broad spectrum of paddlers (and people, in general) with differing views and needs.

For that matter, we may each change roles as our experience and circumstance change. For example, when one first starts paddling, I looked for people to assist me (leaders), both in developing skills and in guiding me in unfamiliar areas. I was a 100% follower at that point. As soon as I was capable of it, I began imparting what I had learned on other newcomers to the sport. I was then a partial leader, but mostly follower. These days, I'm probably mostly a leader, but when I go somewhere unfamiliar or try a new skill, I'm right back to being mostly a follower.

The people who concern me are those who view themselves as 100% leaders, as it means that they're no longer willing to learn.

Yeah, too many variables
I doubt anybody is always a leader, unless he/she paddles only with the same person all the time. Weather conditions, locations, who else is present, type of outing (easy cruise? fast fitness paddle? skill-driven session such as rolling practice? wilderness camping or unloaded day paddle?) could mean the same person switches between leader and follower many times. Sometimes there might not be any discernable difference as to roles.

Some Additional Thoughts…

– Last Updated: Dec-01-04 1:49 PM EST –


I think the categories you laid out are pretty static and that there are far more variables, ranging form individual characteristics to context.

I think *good* leadership is actually adaptable, malleable and sensitive to the combination of variables. A good leader can actually defer leadership in certain situations and context to others in the group, provided the group is comprised of folks with recognized strengths (and acknowledged weaknesses).

Your categories really seem to imply a straight forward heirarchal/authoritarian type of leadership, with success and failure pretty much defined in whether one implements that type of top down leadership.

I think some good thinking/reading about leadership in a "team" context can be found in reading some of literature around the military conceptualizations with respect to "elite teams" vs the standard front line squads, platoons, etc... The issue then becomes that of wanting to go out with a "team" or a "squad."


Actually I agree with you

– Last Updated: Dec-01-04 4:51 PM EST –

I knew that posting a way oversimplified definition of leadership would look just like you say. Darn it. It is as clear as mud I guess, but I was promoting what you are saying, by virtue of everyone thinking and interacting as leaders, making for a fluid and collaborative way.

Actually, totally agree with you, on many levels. Just trying to show how so many folks don't want anyone, leader, member, etc to be PRESENT mentally, intuitively, emotionally, etc and bring these resources to the process of ever changing adventure risk matrix. I am not wanting any of the stuff you find not helpful either! Might have been clearer if I said what allot of folks want is to just be an aggregate not a group in any sense. And like you have helped me to realize, this is fine for many, just not for me. I like more of what you talk about.

Which are you?




Sheep’s role is obvious: To be herded (and sometimes fleeced!). Mostly go along with others plans and want the safety of the herd and the structure maintained by the Shepherd. Some may stray or otherwise present challenges to the Shepherd, but most get along/go along. Learns at the shepherd’s discretion, at a pace set by him and limited by the other sheep.

The Shepherd of course does the herding (and any fleecing). Learning is largely done (except for day to day “lessons learned” or additional training when not shepherding). Roll is primarily control/safety. Secondary role is whatever teaching as the group dynamics/goals permit. (“Shepherd” -not same as “Teacher/Instructor”).

Potential benefits and drawbacks to both roles should also be obvious.

The Sheep dog is somewhere in between and assists with controlling the flock, following shepherd’s commands, etc. Part leader, part follower. Pretty naturally OK with shepherd’s authority as they are involved in it and both lead and follow. Not ready or no desire to lead alone. Still may maintain a bit of the Wolf, and may operate that way too on occasion. Mostly prefers the more cozy arrangement with the shepherd though, and likes working the flock. Learns mostly from shepherd(s), and also from any other sheepdogs.

The Wolf runs alone or in packs. Not interested in herding or tending others, but is happy to run with others of it’s kind. Leadership within the pack exists, but goes unspoken. Only an issue when needed - and automatic then. Rarely questioned as it is simply a direct response to the situation. May be different pack members for different things. All members can generally take care of themselves, alone or together. Learning is mostly from others by example, and individual experimentation.

The post is a rhetorical question really. Pretty easy to sort people. Some may switch roles on different days, but there should be a dominant way of operating - and not just on the water.

This also relates to certifications programs and how people see them. Shepherds need them, Sheepdogs generally like them (praise/reward/group status - promotion to shepherd), sheep can use them to become top ram or even sheepdogs quicker, and wolves - well wolves are just wolves. Beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing, but he’s probably just a sheepdog with a wild streak.