Leadership when paddling with Peers?

Good Morning, Jack

– Last Updated: Sep-15-10 8:26 AM EST –

I'm on vacation this week. Trying to decide whether to focus on the bike or the boat today.

Yes, strangers showing up among the regulars can be scary. Recently a young kid showed up at the evening bike ride. He was really strong but clueless as to how to ride in a group... and whoever brought him didn't attempt to clue him in. This kid was dangerous to be around. Several of us made an excuse to break off from the group and vowed never to ride with him 'til he acquired some common sense.

I assumed that some regular knew this guy and failed to try to teach him the basics of group riding. Maybe he heard about the ride and just showed up... no one knew him?

how is that any different?

sounds like it

I’ve never seen or ever really heard of a dynamic like that on WW.

Back when I used to ride with the club
a newbie was always clued how to ride with the pack.

Every year on the Mt Mitchell ride their would be some idiot that shouldn’t have been in the pack, and he was avoided like the plague !

Jack L

I’m Back From My Ride
Mt Mitchell memories! I will always remember being in that huge group early in the ride and dodging the frame pumps and water bottles that the newbies dropped in the road. Lord, that was hard on the nerves.

"crisis manager"
I was really active for over 20 years in a wilderness adventure club (backpacking, climbing, mountaineering, whitewater, ski and bike touring. On group trips, while there was sometimes a designated “trip leader” (because that person had organized and listed the outing on our club calendar) and sometimes not (just a bunch of us who were experienced and knew each other decided to go on a trip together), I would insist that we designate a safety person – I think of them as a “crisis manager” (i would volunteer if nobody else stepped up). This individual would be given copies of everyone’s emergency contact information, a map of the planned trip route and would have a radio or cellphone, if one was available (we’re going back pre-cell phone here in some cases.) They would function kind of like a designated driver, maintaining a head count at all stops and keeping alert for stragglers, distress or hypothermia signs in participants. I was enough of a pain in the ass that I would insist on a quick check of everyone’s gear, too, whether I knew they were competent or not. And the understanding was if there was an actual emergency, the designated safety guy (or gal) would take over central authority in decision making and coordinating recovery efforts.

I learned the importance of having this type of “point man” during my years working in heavy construction. There needs to be a line of authority established and agreed to by all parties BEFORE an emergency occurs. Democracy is a disaster on a battlefield. And adrenaline charged panic and multiple “I’m taking charge” ego trips can only add to the difficulties.

Even if the trip has a designated “leader/planner” I feel it is important to have a different person cover the “crisis” position. Outing originators sometimes have trouble being objective about decisions like bailing due to threatening weather or changing plans when it is clear that time/distance milestones will not be achievable or when it becomes evident that one or more participants is not able to keep up.

People may argue that this is “overkill” on casual day outings. But I will argue back: over the 40 plus years I’ve been involved in wilderness sports, I’ve lost 7 friends to fatal climbing and paddling accidents. All but one (an unavoidable death by avalanche in the Himalayas) were on “casual day trips”. Same with serious injuries or situations requiring rescue on biking, hiking, climbing and paddling trips.

I was even on one trip where a girl had a bad fall with what looked like a nasty leg fracture – two fellow climbers, one a former fire department EMT and the other a former Army medic, got into a pissing match over how she should be treated. Though I did not have either of their skills, I recognized the need for an managerial intervention and started barking orders at them, assigning one to concentrate on her leg and the other to manage/monitor her vitals and shock, while directing the gawking and catatonic onlookers to hand over some warm clothing and to go for help (fortunately, after years as a construction foreman, I’m able to muster a “boss lady” persona that gets people’s attention.) People’s reactions to disasters are wholly unpredictable and often the most alpha personalities (who you expect to be crisis leaders) become the biggest liabilities when a problem occurs. You really do need someone level-headed who knows ahead of time that they may be called upon to run the scene.

I was reminded of this just last week when I caught that “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” episode on cable TV retelling the tale of the two kayaking buddies in Puget Sound. There is no such thing as a trip that is “too casual” to require some serious consideration beforehand of how prepared all parties are to handle any emergency or change of plans.

Pass around the weed, personalities
won’t clash. Pass around the booze, things can get ugly.

Formal or informal education?
“Turns out the people who most often get in accidents (the research is weighted on user days, not raw numbers) are those with basic education, followed by those with no education.”

The above would seem to imply that a little knowledge is more dangerous than no knowledge. Either that, or the basic education included bad advice.

Gotta be careful with what constitutes “education” since common sense might need to override (or modify) what’s been taught.

Sounds like a control freak
Run away, run away, run far far away from him!

Unless he’s just coming up with an estimated range of duration based on that speed. Flexibility is good.

OTOH, I have paddled with at least one person who really, really was nervous about not having a very specific and fixed plan all laid out. The ironic part was that the flexibility was needed to accommodate the person he had brought with him.

no formal leader, but informal ones
Generally all decisions are made by consensus. If the group is split and each subgroup has enough strong paddlers we may decide to split up. Some, like myself, take a silent leader role where we extra watch the weaker paddlers (often paddling sweep position) and if needed will cut short our own day to escort that paddler to safety if needed.

On very rare occasions we may have a paddler that is behaving too risky for our comfort. Normally a few may talk to a couple others about it first then maybe have an ‘intervention’ where we gently suggest they change their ways or they won’t get invited on paddle. We recognize in the end that each is an adult and we can’t really make them do anything nor can we really just abandon them (normally).

More risky paddles like an open water crossing to an island always have a leader and we more formally access the individual skills sometimes leading to different leaders for different situations.

Group dynamics and leadership
Most of my life I’ve paddled with family or a few friends. That’s my background from childhood. I don’t recall ever spending much time or thought back in the “old days” assessing whether a person we were paddling with was a “leader” or a “follower”, “skilled” or “unskilled”… we just watched out for each other and paddled. Responsibly. Like a bunch of peers.

Now I find myself getting involved in club paddles with groups of more or less strangers, often with wildly different physical abilities, quite often with well developed skill sets from wildly different areas of our sport, and perhaps most notably from different walks of life and the expectations associated with walking those walks for many long years. I’m loathe to think of any as “better” than any other, we’re still all peers, all have our own special skills. But we’re peers of differing backgrounds. It leads to a more complicated and sometimes frustrating group dynamic. Also one that is potentially more rewarding to be a part of. I therefore am reading this thread with great interest.

It is a whole different game from the “old days”, and perhaps calls for a more systematic approach to group organization. So for the sake of safety and to make a trip enjoyable for all involved (including the leader) some sort of leadership/followership, among peers of course, gets involved. What I find somewhat remarkable is how much thought is spent on the responsibility of leadership, its styles and nuances, and how little is spent on the responsibility of followership. I notice at the top of this very page an add promoting a leadership training course - because we’re all just itching to be leaders. Being a responsible non-leading member of a group isn’t something anyone seems to aspire to. Selling courses for followers would be a tough sell indeed. Yet can one succeed without the other? Can safety be assured without some measure of group cooperation?

That’s the #1 potential safety problem I see in our local club. I doubt that we’re alone in this among clubs. This smells to me like a social rather than a paddling problem. We solicit as many “leaders” for as many trips as we can. Its what we do, what the club is for. We expect those leaders to be responsible for the safety of the group and to do what they can to make a trip pleasurable for all involved. We want as many leaders as possible. Lotsa chiefs, qualified for what they do, to be sure; but darned few Indians.

So let’s run that hypothetical scenario… I’ve seen it happen on trips I’ve been on and done my best, with some limited success, to prevent this scenario on trips I’ve led. But I don’t know how to prevent it entirely, especially among peers, and suspect its a social/cultural problem more than a leadership problem - but one that can affect safety.

Imagine that you’re hitting the easiest possible stream, beautiful and as safe as a stream can be. You picked it because its safe and beautiful, you want to do your part for the club. You’re qualified to help in most any conceivable situation that might arise there. You arrange the shuttle. You let everyone know where the take-out is, that there will be breaks periodically to bring the group back together as we get spread out, remind everyone about using their PFDs, etc. You get your waiver forms signed, though you know they’re pretty much meaningless in court should it come to that.

Your chiefly peers nod in knowing agreement and go for their boats.

The sea kayakers and racers shoot out ahead of the group before most have their boats in the water. That’s what they do and enjoy. That’s why they came. (But if you stay with them you’re essentially abandoning your group from the git-go.) Fine. They do it well and can look after each other. They’ve trained and practiced, some of the best paddlers in the club. You might see them again next month at the club meeting. They don’t feel a need to group up. Its not their leadership trip. They don’t need to dally around waiting for someone who might need their help. How, they might reasonably wonder, could anyone screw up here?

The whitewater crowd lags far behind practicing eddy turns at every possible hint of an eddy, rolling, taking turns surfing holes the size of soccer balls to see who can do it best. Fine also. No real safety issue - everyone’s well within their skill level. Its almost a joke to think of whitewater skill levels and look at that lone rock stuck there in the sand. Some of the most competent paddlers in the group are back there and they know how to do a rescue. Peers doing their thing.

The sweep has to stay behind them, of course. Usually there’s someone who just wants to relax and drift through a day on the water back there keeping the sweep company. That’s OK too, but of course it puts your sweep so far back that they might as well not be on the water if any emergency arises.

The nature watchers will disappear up a tributary stream to watch birds or otters or whatever is noteworthy. They’ll disappear without a trace from whoever is supposed to be the designated leader if you don’t watch them like hawks. They’re OK too, they know what they’re about. Some of the chiefest of the chiefs are among them. Not doing anything dangerous…

So the leader is probably best occupied keeping an eye on anyone who might be having a bit of trouble, blisters, the complete novice, whatever…

But it puts the designated trip leader in the position of herding cats. I suspect the leader of the trip that the sea cave incident reported above might have felt a bit like that… Paddlers, God bless us every one, can be every bit as independent as cats. The trip leader has the responsibility, legally and ethically, but due to a complete lack of “followership” he is not really in a leadership role. He’s a group leader without a group and nobody but him gives a rip. He can bark orders or not, do whatever… but the fact of the matter is he can’t deny anyone the right to put their boat in the stream, paddle wherever they like, whenever they like, with whoever they like - but their safety is somehow still his legal and ethical responsibility.

And this is a litigious age we live in. I think that’s an important reality to bear in mind.

I agree wholeheartedly with willowleaf that perhaps the times when accidents are most likely to occur are on casual outings, in undeniably easy situations, with folks who know better and probably have done better a hundred times. But they could be serious or potentially fatal nevertheless.

Great Lakes and whitewater trips aside, that I think, is what a club trip leader around here mostly needs to watch out for and be prepared to deal with; the fluke accident or medical condition that flares up unexpectedly…in some member of this group that isn’t really, in fact, a group but a bunch of peers with different backgrounds paddling together.

(We, in fact, had a fatal heart attack to a group member a few years ago on a trip. Probably would have lost him even if it happened in the lobby of a hospital, but a slightly lesser heart attack would have required group cooperation and action. Could we have done it? We’ll never know.)

It would be darned nice if the skills available within the group were actually available to the leader in a timely manner. The hard fact is though that if something serious were to happen, that there was an urgent need for the skills of any member of the group, the chances are slim that the leader would a) know an emergency was happening and b)slimmer still that he could muster any of the skills that members of the group had and bring them to bear on the problem.

The cats will not be herded.

No shortage of leadership or skills. There might even be an excess of both. The problem is one of followership.

I find that both worrisome and disheartening. Not I nor anyone can lead if so many refuse to follow. I think we can do more to promote safe paddling by seriously considering what we can best do to support our peers and “leaders for a day” than by trying to always be better leaders ourselves. If we as paddlers spent as much time considering the habits necessary to improve our “followership skills” as we do our leadership skills this group paddling thing would be considerably safer, I believe.

Sometimes makes me long for the “good old days” when if you put your boat on the water the responsibility was yours and yours alone. No required judgments of other paddlers, no mini-bureaucracy, no leaders, no followers… just a bunch of individuals taking responsibility for themselves.

That’s why I like Pnet paddles.

BTW, thebob.com is probably the most skilled leader I’ve ever seen.


– Last Updated: Sep-15-10 9:37 PM EST –

Yes, it was those with formal education that were at higher risk. It was that information that spurred changes in the content of said formal education.

The original syllabus was not "bad", it just did not take into account the result that training in risk assessment, plus the training in incident response, was incomplete. Using such knowledge, those people tended to take more or unnecessary risk. The new information includes training in decision making, group management...and leadership.

I am finding it amusing that so many responses to this thread are negative about leadership, yet IMO, the examples cited show a poor understanding of leadership. Simply designating a person "leader" is inadequate, and may contribute to errors made. Leadership is most definitely not about "barking orders", or ego, or someone who is dictating their desires upon a group.

followership and mixed group
It’s great for folks to learn to be good followers, but one can’t really expect it because some in the group are new to the group and maybe the sport and so still need to learn what a good follower is in this context.

As for the mixed group of paddlers (those flying ahead and those going slow and practicing fun skills) this is really about having a simple talk before starting. Even with no formal leader at least one should speak up and ask “so what are we planning to do?”. Based on the answers and especially when the group has different classes of boats you may have to decide up front to split into groups and get back together at some key points (like maybe the very end or a lunch break). You really don’t want to launch without at least that much talk.

Same thing happens on my mtn bike rides. We talk about routes and if some part of the route doesn’t suit someone we might talk about splitting and meeting up at some place like where an easy vs difficult trail come back together. But we don’t just take off without talking about it.

Leadership in challenging conditions
This is a great topic, especially for those of us who go out into the rough stuff.

I don’t dismiss the BCU model of always having an agreed leader, but I am convinced that team is more important than leader. The best security comes from joint responsibility from all the members of a strong team. In particular, from everyone’s accurate understanding of the abilities of the group members. Who needs to step up to the leader roll may very well be driven by the positioning during the situation, and not by any leader agreement or pecking order.

My concern with the BCU model of focussing on always having an agreed leader is the terrible risk of too much passivity from able participants who need to be ready to step up when the situation demands it. See “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer.

For myself, I try to be ready to lead or be led. I always look out for everybody, in particular for those for whom I am in position. Even though my skills are clearly inferior to some of the superstar leaders I paddle with, I look out for them.

I was ready to be led recently, when I suddenly found myself swimming in a pretty serious situation. My brain turned to mush because of my immediate jeopordy. My viewpoint while swimming was quite limited. My buddy was in position. He took charge, and I followed his orders, as we have trained.

Last winter, when I alone came upon my three companions without their boats in the surf, I was not ready enough to take charge. I think all three of us who were conscious were impaired by the shock of our leader being the one who was unconscious. I’ve been working on becoming more ready to step up since that tragedy.

great having multiple who can lead
I’m leading a group this weekend for a 23 mile crossing to an island. Someone else in the group actually organized this in the sense of figuring out dates and securing a camp site. She ask if I could lead and I said only if we get at least one or more of equal or better skill to come to as I didn’t want to try to help too many at once or deal with myself being in trouble without solid help. Fortunately I got what I asked for with five of eight having made the trip before so it should be a great trip.

Skilled Leader…

– Last Updated: Sep-15-10 6:42 PM EST –

and there in lies the rub for me. I have full respect for those with the time and experience to lead by example. It is clear to one and all they possess wisdom and knowledge and wanting more of that, I observe and listen.

It's the paddler with some time but no real talent, knowledge, or wisdom becoming the self-appointed and anointed that chaps my ass. I am sure they were that way in the business world, with family, and perhaps spouse(s). But I will not be micro-managed on open free and public waters by someone who doesn't know their ass from a hole in the water.

I can out run them and out fun them.

Well said, but some clarification

– Last Updated: Sep-15-10 9:42 PM EST –

I like a lot of what you said, but I strongly disagree with the comment, "I don't dismiss the BCU model of always having an agreed leader, but I am convinced that team is more important than leader. The best security comes from joint responsibility from all the members of a strong team. In particular, from everyone's accurate understanding of the abilities of the group members"

Have you taken a BCU leadership course? The "dismiss" part of your claim is odd. The leadership as taught is exactly what is in the rest of your statement.

A trained leader assesses the group, finds out what everyone can contribute, and then forms a team. As an example, we often teach a rule of behavior- properly termed a heuristic- that if the leader clips in a tow, they are no longer a leader. A breakable rule, for sure, but makes one reflect on actions. Who in the group can reliably tow? Have they been identified?

How about communication? Beyond the usual paddle signals, who has a deck compass? Not everone? Then the leader might employ a buddy system, where every sub-team has a deck compass in that group (deck compasses are great for facilitating precise information), and also a VHF. How many times have people been with a group where several, but not all, have a VHF? Buddy system...and an enforced battery check! Quite surprising how many times people have said they have a VHF with them, after the enforced check find their battery is gone or nearly gone.

Here is a difference between guiding and leading. Imagine a serious crossing. A guide would say "stay close", and likely yell at mis-behaviors. A leader would might set up a lead pair to pace set and follow the course (range/transit or compass bearings). Why a pair? To avoid the rabbit effect, especially the rabbit that doesn't look back on the group. One person in the pair watches the course bearing and maintains speed, the other feeds information to that person about group ability to keep up. Another person could be designated a time keeper, and/or check side bearings if necessary (such as affirming entering/exiting shipping channels using side bearings). Others could be designated watches for assessing other traffic (do they know COLREGS, at the very least rule 7d?) and relating the proper information (not,"there is a sailboat coming from the left", but "sailboat off our left/port, under motor power, will pass in front if we maintain course/speed). See what this would do? The leader can watch over all, possibly even hear information that might have escaped them, and has made an effective team. So effective that they are all motivated to stay real close! The leader is free to move within the group, as the situation requires.

The potential problem with the leaderless or "wolfpack" situation is that it assumes that the skill of the individuals is such that they are unlikely to get in trouble,and that they are bad ass enough to handle any incident. What it potentially is weak at is assessment and decision making. Such as, do observable skills match with claimed skills; is everyone at the top of their game, or is someone having a bad day; are conditions degrading, and is someone constantly gathering new information to compare against the plan (big one,I can't tell you how many times groups base a day on the classic assumption of a 3kn pace, but never check their SMG and re-assess).

The comment about "Into thin air" is interesting. I would say that that incident demonstrates the difference between guiding, vs leading a group with contributory skills.

Just scratching the surface, here.

Some will dismiss
BCU or ACA because of an an undeserved elitist bias. Having a paddler in a group with rescue skills and knowledge that could prevent an injury or fatality is always a plus IMO. Having someone with knowledge of tides and local conditions always preferred.

A group consensus prior to heading out can prevent personality conflicts and more importantly, a trip to the emergency room or morgue.

Great input
Thanks for taking the time to post that. Really speaks to the issues I’m asking about.

I don’t doubt that you
"can out run them and out fun them". And by doing so you are opting out of your own responsibility for the group.

No one wants to be micro-managed, especially by someone who doesn’t have your skills. Still, if you are part of the group, you have a responibility for it to some degree or another. If you choose to NOT be part of the groups’ paddle, then outrun them and do your own thing, but then you are on your own. No problem and sometimes that’s the right way to do it.

What we’ve found workable is similar to how the Navy handles groups and responsibility, i.e. a person wears the hat of running the group, and eventually, all the members are trained in different areas (basic paddling, exits, rescues, towing, night paddling, navigation, coastal paddles, how to run sweep, and how to plan and lead paddles). As each person gets more skilled they assume more responsibility for the group but aren’t “bossing” the other members. They wear their hat if they are the leader, sweep, etc. If a person gets into trouble, the people best at rescues step in, others who are better at night navigation handle it until others can wear the hat. Each person contributes as part of a working team and the paddles go smoothly and without anyone jerking the others around. I’ve seen a number of paddlers become more skilled and more confident this way, and the group seems to be more fun as the skills increase.