Preparing for rafting the Colorado River this summer, I've just read Kevin Fedarko's The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon. (I am indebted to Kent Johnson for the suggestion.)
But this isn't about that.
This is about white water as a metaphor.
First, this story.
A month ago, I visited a roomful of people I've never met. I had been invited by a colleague I'd never met to come chair his CEO peer group. I'd posted the goofy idea on our Vistage intraweb that I would be glad to serve as a "Guest Conductor," leading someone else's group for the day. Jonas Littman invited me in.
Jonas showed courage. He was daring enough to stand down and let me chair his beloved group. It was like throwing me the keys to his Ferrari.
It was a fun day, leaning in and leaning out of the group as they did their thing. At the end of the day, Jonas and I questioned the choices I had made during the day. It was a humbling and ego-swelling experience.
Keep that in the back of your head.
On the way home, this paragraph.
So, the next morning -- after a canceled flight left me wandering around Grand Central Terminal for an unscheduled artist's date -- I flew home, reading The Emerald Mile.
During my flight, Mr. Fedarko compared and contrasted two kinds of river trips: the slowest and the fastest. He explored the virtues of both. Slowest seems extravagant, but oh! what you can see. Fastest seems ignorant, but oh! to be part of the river so intimately.
In the end, both are ideal, of course, because it's not the destination, it's the journey. And both types of journey have their rich merit.
(I don't know about you, but I've grown tired of that phrase. It so often sounds like a scold: "It's not the destination, it's the journey." Or it sounds absurd, because I'm trying to get home. I'm trying to minimize my journey. I'm using GPS to minimize the time and aggravation.)
Anyway, here's the paragraph, referring to "the rim," the upper edge of the Grand Canyon:
Of the many attractions that draw people to the bottom of the canyon, perhaps the most potent and beguiling is the realization that the experience is the opposite of a race — the antithesis of rushing from where you are toward someplace you think you would rather be, only to discover, once you arrive, that your true goal lies somewhere else. That is a defining characteristic of life in the world above the rim, and if there is a point to being in the canyon, it is not to rush but to linger, suspended in a blue-and-amber haze of in-between-ness, for as long as one possibly can. To float, to drift, savoring the pulse of the river on its odyssey through the canyon, and above all, to postpone the unwelcome and distinctly unpleasant moment when one is forced to reemerge and reenter the world beyond the rim — that is the paramount goal.
— Kevin Fedarko, The Emerald Mile, pages 164-5
And then it hits me.
Everything I love to do is like this.
Anything I want to finish is something I don't like doing.
But that's not true when I'm leading a Vistage meeting. Remember that "Guest Conductor" experience? That was an experience to be savored.
And then it hits me: leading peer group meetings (including one-to-one coaching conversations) isn't something I'm trying to finish.
It's like running rapids. Getting out of the rapids isn't the goal. Well, sure it is, because you can't live in the rapids. But running the rapids is an experience of assessing challenges and opportunities, calibrating behavior, leading others through the white water of Work Mode (see Wilfred Bion), when the group is attending to the most difficult challenges and opportunities. It's tense. It's uncomfortable. It's rough water. Everyone has to pull together. All conflict must be addressed.
Most business meetings aren't like that.
Usually, the best business meetings follow a clear agenda. We get the work done. We make the decisions, check that off our list and go to the next meeting. Getting the meeting done and over is the goal.
So this metaphor challenged everything I've ever thought about meetings.
Great Meetings -- Great Moments -- Are Like Running Rapids.
It's tense. People get wet. The leader is doubted.
And I'm not trying to get to the end of the run.
I'm trying to work with a team to run the rapids.
I'm not trying to be finished.