Woman sitting in kayak holding oar facing away from camera

Finding leadership metaphors in kayaking

I’ve started the last two Sundays like this:

Woman sitting in kayak holding oar facing away from camera

Ready to take on Falls Lake.

The changing weather means dusting off the kayak and spending mornings on the water. Aaron and I have been frequenting Falls Lake due to both its proximity to our home and the seemingly endless opportunities to explore the 12,000+ acre reservoir.

I still consider myself a beginner in the ‘yak (and perhaps calling myself out even more by referring to it as a ‘yak). Adding more upper body strength workouts to my routine has made a difference. But when boats motor by, sending cresting waves towards my 7’ vessel, staying the course requires more than brute force. It’s about keeping my mind focused, remembering to breathe, and taking it one stroke at a time [leadership advice 101, am I right?]

Without falling into too deep in what could be a cheesy metaphor, I reflected about my own leadership style while kayaking these past two outings. My need to control the outcome of my trip results in me paddling without taking many breaks. But, when I do stop and sit, even for a few moments, I allow nature to guide what happens next. If I’m lucky, it’s a sighting of an osprey diving for a fish or a heron squawking across the lake, letting us know that we’ve disrupted its morning routine (sorry heron!) I try to ask myself in the real world:¬†how can I let go of what’s not in my control today?¬†Believe me: easier said than done.

Wind brings another element of surprise and struggle on the open water. On our first Sunday out, we faced choppy waves as we headed back towards the beach. It was exhilarating: the kayak bowed and dipped, spraying water into the air and all over me. I feel this way when new ideas bubble up from within me or from working in collaboration with others; those times when we’re in sync and progress is being made and the momentum is on our side until..

until is it not. Turning the final corner, my forward motion came to a screeching halt. Fatigued, I tried to find my rhythm with the oar once again, but the natural elements didn’t let up. Was I even moving forward? Or did someone spread molasses on the bottom of my kayak?

Do you know that feeling too? Even when pointed in the right direction, it can feel insurmountable to get to the end point, or at least to the next stop. For me, this feeling can stem from the tasks required of me. There are some tasks that come easy to me, and some that I put off…and put off…and put off…(did someone say data analytics? Because I’m pretty sure my calendar says lunch and then nap).

However, these laborious items often need to be completed for the purposes of evaluation, accountability, or preparation in order to hand the project off to someone else. (Note: if there’s no reason or context for a task existing outside of saying you’ve done said task, I’d stick a¬†let it go sticker on it and find something more useful to do with your time.)

I needed to get off of Falls Lake at some point. Aaron would probably want to head home. I was getting hungry (and didn’t want to slip into¬†hangry mode). So, I had to grit my teeth and press on.¬†Sometimes that’s what leadership looks like: gritting one’s teeth (or biting one’s tongue) and looking ahead to what you can do to improve the situation or to find a different solution.

One of the greatest gifts I’ve received serving as Chair of the YNPN Triangle NC board of directors these past three years is this lesson. I can’t – and won’t – ever make everyone else on the board happy. I’ll be too soft; too mean; too unapproachable; too hands on. I told a former board member today that I fail frequently as a leader; when I do step on toes or make a mistake, I apologize and try to learn from the experience.

Group of people standing in dance poses

What brings me fulfillment: lip sync battles with some of my fellow YNPN Triangle NC board members.

Even after one year as a kayak owner, I’m still a bit clumsy in the boat. Sometimes my oar handle hits the side. I’m not sure if I always have the best form. But I do what I can, each time, to improve while also allowing myself to enjoy the experience.

As a leader, if you’re not enjoying the experience, what are you there for? Despite the obstacles or challenges I’ve faced with YNPN and in other leadership opportunities over the years, I still find joy and fulfillment. Most of the time, it’s from the people I’m surrounded by, the dedicated volunteers or co-workers who show up, work hard, and fight for necessary change.

That feeling is the same on the water. Aaron’s enthusiasm and sense of adventure are what makes our Sundays on the water so special. Yes, I’m still smitten to see a bald eagle perched in an overlooking tree. But, I’m even more smitten in watching the sheer happiness consume my kayaking partner, one moment at time.

American bald eagle sitting in a tree

These birds, I tell you what. Photo credit: Aaron J. Todd