Leadership Lessons: Paddle faster than the current

  • Published
  • By Capt. Daniel Chavez
  • 319th Medical Group executive officer
As a 16-year old Boy Scout in New Jersey, I was determined to earn my Canoeing Merit Badge. Many skills were taught such as navigation, keeping the canoe straight while paddling, what to do with a swamped (flooded) canoe, how to recover a capsized canoe, and water rescue, but one important lesson stood out. Our instructor said "If you ever find yourself paddling in a current, especially white water, make sure you paddle faster than the current." I felt it made no sense at the time and went on to earn my merit badge.

The following summer I went on a 10-mile camping/canoe trip on the Delaware River. It was my first experience canoeing in a river as opposed to a lake. Mark, an Army Ranger officer and our volunteer trip leader, told us repeatedly to keep the canoes close to one another. After only a few minutes, I was already paddling our canoe ahead of him and the group, knowing he would have to stay with the slower canoes full of younger Scouts. He yelled at us to stay near, but we went on. Several others followed my lead, and the group of eight canoes split into two.

We soon found ourselves in a slight current and allowed it to pull us. We stowed our paddles, relaxed, and that's when it happened. We came around a bend in the river and noticed the water looked different. The current was much stronger at that point, and our canoes continued to pick up speed at an increasing rate. Laughter quickly dissipated as concern settled in. We made a frantic attempt to paddle faster than the current, as we were taught, but were unable to gain the necessary speed. We had lost control of our canoes before we could comprehend what was happening. The strong current took all of us from rock to rock, turned our canoes sideways, and flipped us over into the river. Although no one was hurt, most of our gear and all of our food was lost. Mark and the younger Scouts paddled through those waters in complete command of their canoes and helped us recover what we could.

I expected a series of "I told you so" lectures from Mark that day, but he chose to mentor me instead. He told me "Dan, whether in life or on a river, always paddle faster than the current." I learned the hard way that paddling faster than the current allows you to steer and remain in control. You can dictate your own direction. Although the water current is stronger at choke points between rocks, maintaining a faster speed allows you to steer away from them. Inversely, "going with the flow" means surrendering control to the current, and being subject to whatever happens wherever the current takes you.

Here are a few life and leadership lessons learned from my experience on the river that day:
Mind the rules - Rules exist for a reason, especially safety rules. If you are confused about the rule, ask for clarity, but avoid disregarding a rule solely on the basis that it makes no sense to you.

Stick to the plan - It is important to have a plan and stick to it, but make sure your plan includes contingency plans (for when Plan A fails). Plan A may seldom get executed without a hitch or two.

Beware of your actions - Whether you know it or not, someone is looking at what you do and is likely to follow. Do not lead yourself or others into peril. Although you may be able to come out unscathed, they may not.

Take the time to mentor - Never miss your chance to make a positive difference in someone's life. It may be a lifelong impact as this mentoring moment on the river has been for me.

Be ready before the trial - A plan is important, but preparation is vital. Mark and the younger Scouts were able to navigate the same waters we could because they started picking up their speed before the current picked up.

Never surrender your agency to act - Avoid putting yourself in situations where you are at the mercy of external conditions... they may not be merciful!

From our profession of arms perspective, "going with the flow" can mean doing the bare minimum, such as when an Airman comes to work, does his/her job, and goes home. Not only is this behavior a violation of an Air Force core value, but that Airman is surrendering the ability to control external factors/conditions. Unit leadership dictates the speed of the unit's particular current, but it is always possible to maintain a faster speed. Examples include furthering your education even if your job does not require it, setting appropriate goals as a young Airman in order to be competitive for chief, or building your Promotion Recommendation Form as a young lieutenant for a board several years away to ensure you know what information will be needed in your future reports to make you competitive.

As Vince Lombardi so eloquently stated, "The will to win is not nearly so important as the will to prepare to win." At the end of the day, your career and life will be what you make of them. Things will happen, things will go wrong, and unexpected currents will appear out of nowhere to knock you off course. Despite all this, you will always increase your chances of pulling through trials if you are ready beforehand, and most importantly, if you always paddle faster than the current.