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PADDLING YOUR OWN CANOE

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My summers in Nova Scotia are defined by the number of kayaking adventures I can pack into a week.  Sometimes I go out alone – for quite long trips – ‘quite long’ in my books usually means several hours, not several days or weeks.  Most often I am joined by friends or family and we choose our direction based on the aggregate of the skills and abilities in the group (and the direction of the prevailing wind, which is sometimes misleading because winds shift around here).

Sometimes this means that I have to pace myself to remain within chatting distance of a convalescing friend; and sometimes it means really having to put some muscle power into keeping up with a much younger, stronger, fitter (male) relative, like a son, grandson or nephew.

We’re all, no doubt, familiar with the expression ‘paddling your own canoe’. According to http://www.phrases.org.uk/ it originated in Malaysia: the following comment on the lack of community spirit among the coffee planters was published in The Selangor Journal: Jottings Past and Present, in 1807.

“If the planters would unite and use their united influence they could start a bank to advance money to deserving young planters… but they won’t do it. They let each poor fellow paddle his own canoe, and if he capsizes and stretches out his hand in despair for someone to save him… they won’t do it.”

Lord Baden-Powell, associated by most with the founding of the Scouts movement, but in my culture associated with the Siege of Mafikeng at the beginning of the second Anglo-Boer War, in later years advanced the concept of self-reliance in a book he titled ‘Paddle your own Canoe’. I’m tempted to digress to stories of the siege: how the British soldiers had to resort to eating horse-meat and the tacit agreement between Boer and Brit that there would be no fighting on Sundays. But then the Brits starting playing cricket on Sundays and so General Cronje (the hero on my side), issued an ultimatum “You stop playing cricket on Sundays or we’re going to start shooting on Sundays.” (Or words to that effect.)  (The Boers were seriously into paddling their own canoes and did not like the Queen’s armies invading their independent republics much at all.)

The Cambridge online dictionary defines ‘paddling your own canoe’ as someone who acts independently and does not need help from anyone else.  The independence of mind implicit in the phrase seems to be contrary to the team-based  workplace cultures that is so de rigour,  and that’s what I want to talk about, by means of telling you about last Sunday’s kayaking adventure with William and Daniel on Lake Charlotte.

Last Sunday I went kayaking with a nephew and a grandson. We each had our own canoe and paddles. We had sandwiches, some energy bars and water. We took sensible clothing to cover us up, against the onslaught of the hot summer sun on the lake waters of Nova Scotia.  There we were: A grandmother on the other side of 60, a nephew on the younger side of 40 and a grandson on the teen side of 20.  Fitness and kayaking competence was not evenly spread, but there was enough to go around to complete a 4 hour exploration not only of the lake I live on but also of the next lake – down the rapids I’ve been avoiding since I discovered them, for fear of not being able to get back home.

We each paddled our own canoe, and yet we were on this adventure together: we paced ourselves, at times lagging behind and at times zooming forward; chatting; occasionally yelping at a splash of cold water; slowing down to point out some loons or eel grass in the middle of the lake where a week ago there was nothing; and a bald eagle swooped overhead just to remind us of the sky above, causing reminiscences about cloud animals spotted in the past.

The fittest and most practiced member of the group didn’t so much set the pace as mapped the course of our journey. Most of the time he was far ahead of us, yet it didn’t feel that he was rushing us. It felt more like his curiosity was pulling him forward. The rest of the party had their own curiosity, but weren’t quite as driven.  We were happy to follow, while staying together in our own comfortable pod. Each paddling their own canoe, but in constant contact (mostly talking, but occasionally we ran into each other too, but always with good humour.)

There was an undefined and flexible gap between the first and the second kayak – it never got to be so great as to lose line of sight, but it was beyond hailing distance, except when the paddler slowed down to experience the stillness of a lily pond and to forecast that good bass fishing seemed likely in that spot.  We were each paddling according to our own understanding of our craft and within our own physical inclinations, imagination and curiosity.  The outlier canoeist is a nephew of mine.  He runs a very successful business started by his parents; his passion is sailing – the adventurous long distance kind – on the wide open Indian Ocean.  Yet his thrill at being on a Canadian lake where nothing man-made was visible other than what we’d brought with us was as great as mine.

I couldn’t help but reflect on theories of leadership and group formation as we moved across the water.  In my own experience of being compelled to work in teams, and subsequently happily to lead and then to coach teams,  paddling one’s own canoe is in fact a component of being a good team member. By failing to paddle at all, or by paddling badly, a team member causes the entire pod of kayakers (or workplace teams) to flounder, lose momentum and direction.  By paddling diligently, you contribute to team cohesion – you share experiences and insights, you make decisions together, you offer and receive help when needed, and everyone moves in the same direction – towards the destination you envisaged as you embarked. By taking responsibility for yourself, inside your own canoe (applying your skills to the best of your ability to manage your resources toward arriving at a common goal), you contribute to team success.

Yet, there are those among us who are loners – who want, not only to paddle our own canoes, but to launch out on our own.  Although we humans are social creatures, there are those among us who are unique – those who shine more brilliantly on their own than confined to a group or team.   The leadership challenge is to recognise that we’re not all equally anxious to be team players, even though we may very well be as committed to the same goals – we just have different ways of getting there.  The leadership challenge is to enable those entrepreneurial spirits to blossom in their own canoes, off on their own adventures, and to make it possible for them to come back with their creative ideas in a way that stimulates excitement and engagement in the rest of the team, rather than resentment that everyone isn’t treated the same.

IMG_20160731_202306The greater leadership challenge is in being that entrepreneur – that outlier – who wants to go further and faster, who needs to know when to come back and how to share the experience in a way that excites and motivates the stay-at-home pod. And, sometimes, in slowing down and bonding with the pod, because if the leader is too far removed, too often, the bond weakens, jealously surfaces and trust is at risk.

And, my final point is that the leader who thinks s/he has all the answers and all the dreams is bound to run afoul of the team.  As the text books all say, leaders need to be visionaries but they also need to be collaborators if they want team cohesion and trust.  So when that lone kayaker, approaching the next set of rapids, realises that the connection with the pod is at risk, he comes back, and asks what the pod would like to do next.  “Swim and eat lunch.”  And so the entrepreneurial leader and the pod agree to head to an island in the middle of the lake where they moored the canoes, plunged into the water where they each swam and floated as they saw fit, and afterwards came back to eat their sandwiches and drink some water.

©Delphine du Toit 2016

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