Outriggers and Leaders

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Outriggers and LeadershipNear my home in Hawaii is a stream that leads out to the ocean where I often paddle my kayak. It’s also where the local outrigger canoe club practices. I’d seen the outrigger canoes many times on television, but the first time I found myself in the water with them I was surprised by the size and the power of the canoes and their crews.

When discussing leadership is common to use a canoe crew as an example, but the power of those outrigger canoe crews underscores why it’s a great example to use. For the canoe to move like that the crew must work together very well, and they must have the discipline to practice often.

The 6-man canoes the local club paddles are 30-45 feet long, and they left a wake that rocked my kayak as they sprinted past! A practiced crew can get their canoe up to 20 knots, which is fast enough to ski behind! Power isn’t everything; you have to maneuver the canoe as well. I’ve seen six man canoe teams slow their big canoes from speed then turn 180 degrees on a buoy, and then accelerate again to 10 or 15 knots. Trust me it’s an impressive sight, and it doesn’t happen without a well-led and confident team.

Leaders can get those sorts of results if they lead their teams well. Getting the team all “paddling” in synch with each other is the key to organizational excellence. There’s a variety of ways to make that happen, from finding the “sweet spot” of personal-organizational-task needs to inspiring people with personal example. But we can’t neglect the importance of organizational discipline that comes from practice. Leaders have to set the example and establish the standards. Just like the steerman who calls the strokes and guides the canoe, teams respond to steady and confident leaders. Much of that confidence comes with practice.

Practice and routine are powerful tools at a leader’s disposal because as people repeat success they gain confidence in their ability as well as their teammates. Not every business had repeatable processes, but establishing standards of performance is something any organization can employ to get the team “paddling together.”

In the end, be it well drilled process or established quality standards, leading teams to high levels of performance requires confident leadership.