What Makes a Great Leader?

*This page occurs in reverse chronological order

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Words by Chris Wing

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[row] [col width=”1/2″] The growth of an individual in kayaking, especially whitewater kayaking, tends to be a mutual relationship shared between the person who is trying to learn and everyone else. Sometimes the counterpart is an individual mentor or as big as an entire community, such as a club. An important contributing factor in the growth process that I feel gets lost in this equation is why the student/individual was motivated to participate in the sport in the first place. The inundation of information is almost immediate and very passionate no matter what channel such information comes from. A new boater will learn, essentially, “This is the way that it’s done, so do it;” again, this is not for a lack of enthusiasm or genuine sincerity or even experience on the part of those relaying instruction or advice.

This current paradigm of information being passed along to the new kayaker drives a great deal of controversy and, at times, even resentment from the apprentice. Social media has put a spotlight on this idea in recent history. Personal videos of descents receive harsh criticism about learning/paddling progression not being appropriate. I believe, that decry against particular progressions is not necessarily ill placed but perhaps, rather, one sided. I have sat on sides before when it comes to schools of thought in learning progression but I would be remiss to not consider what the student seeks in his/her own progression. After all, one size certainly does not fit all in kayaking, and there is plenty of room for creative execution of the laws of physics. However, an understanding of those physics certainly stands as a good foundation for other lessons to follow.

Some students are going to be better equipped than others to handle the mental tests that anyone can face in whitewater kayaking. So, how can the student equip himself/herself for long-term success? How does one realize what progression is best suited for them?


Understanding Motivation

The current definition of the learning progression and whether it fits for an individual will largely be determined by the motivations of the individual who is participating, motivation being the general desire or willingness for someone to do something. Motivation is an integral part of how we behave in response to emotional reactions and therefore reinforce neural pathways in a negative or positive light. Referencing our previous article, for it was important for long term success to reinforce pathways of reason from our outer neo-cortex inward to our reptilian complex (Lizard Brain). However, if we let our programmed biology do its job, we are fighting an incredible uphill battle in that our reptilian (unconscious mind) and limbic system (subconscious mind) fire off a waterfall of neural impulses vs. the slighted neo-cortex (conscious). In other words, we allow it to become easier and easier to reinforce negative, fear centric experiences.

If the mindset going into the activity is one of focus to start with and is rooted in a great deal of motivation for self (intrinsic), then the ability to reason for oneself is triggered in the beginning. Therefore, the individual’s ability to handle adversity is already in his/her favor. Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize our potentials.

If the mindset going into the activity is motivated by outside of self (extrinsic), the motivation is not personal and therefore reason is left to outside motivators. This plays to favor the natural process of allowing our Unconscious/Subconscious to dominate throughout the progression. Success can come in this scenario, but it will undoubtedly be a longer process, and may only come when the individual finally realizes that they must take ownership of their own progression to find success.

The person who is motivated intrinsically (motivated by self) is seeking out personal rewards of accomplishment and suitably will seek out those rewards more often. Even when faced with adversity, the motivations are apparent to the individual and continued to be sought.

The person who is motivated extrinsically engages in behavior in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishment. Although this can be an effective means to initiate motivation, this can actually lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation long term, which is paramount in overcoming the challenges an individual will undoubtedly face in whitewater kayaking.


Perception Vs. Reality

Undoubtedly, most paddlers observed kayaking and thought that not only do I want to participate, “but how hard can this really be,” before actually getting started. If you are currently a paddler, you already know the answer to this common question: really hard. In fact, hard enough to even force the question at times of why you ever even started to kayak at all. Hopefully, you may now know or are discovering that with time and patience, whitewater kayaking has become an attainable goal.

Dealing with our perceptions and how they actually compare to reality is the biggest fight we have to stay motivated in our kayaking over time. Coming to terms with reality over and over again can become a very sobering experience and can sap you entirely of that intrinsic motivation which we know we will need in surplus.

A case study is the student/paddler who is having a hell of time learning a combat roll and continues to swim. He/she is continually faced with a grim reality of having to continue to swim until committing to tackling the anxieties of staying upside down long enough to properly orient himself/herself for a skill that he/she knows. However, the student is not alone. Everyone is quick to remind a paddler in this phase that everybody swims and it is part of the learning process. This can quickly become embarrassing for the individual, and extrinsic motivators quickly take the place of intrinsic. Our sole motivation becomes not having to burden our group, and suffer the indignation of another swim.

[/col] [col width=”1/2″]This is the most common case of perception vs. reality and of course is reinforced by motivators. The extrinsic motivation of avoiding embarrassment can become so great that we will replace reality with a perceived reality for an extremely long time. Many paddlers get lost in this stage of the learning curve that could have been avoided from the very beginning with a healthy dose of reality. It takes a powerful relationship between teacher and student to get this idea across without totally shattering confidence and motivation to participate… but more on that later.


Acceptable Outcomes – Developing Judgment

In order to avoid being knocked into submission by our own brain, it is important to train the brain to expect some amount of failure. After all, I liken learning to how a toddler learns to walk: plenty of falling. Falling is an expected part of learning in kayaking as well, but it is important to note that the distance of that fall does not exceed a particular point of no return, both physically and mentally. This is the concept of acceptable outcomes that all paddlers need to develop for themselves, and revisit from time to time to keep ushering themselves along in their personal progressions.

Everyone will have a different threshold for what is acceptable but, over time, each individual will begin to notice that this threshold expands and becomes more resilient. This is actually the physical manifestation of our positive neural pathways being built and reinforced. Developing an acceptable outcome, both positive and negative, is also the first step to visualizing. Did you know that the brain fires off the same pathways in your brain whether you are actually doing the action or visualizing the action? You begin to reinforce success or failure well before you ever actually attempt your feat.

Whether you experience success or not, it is important to know that failure can be a reality and it best be one from which you are able to pick up the pieces. Otherwise, we reinforce a memory of programmed fear.

A little mantra I have for myself when deciding to push through to something new and challenging goes like this:



What are the moves that are required for success?


Perception Vs. Reality

Am I capable of making those moves?


Acceptable Outcomes

What are the consequences if I do not make those moves and am I willing to accept those consequences?



Was my choice appropriate? Have I come back from the experience? If not, how do I come back from the experience?



Having the conversation


So, if an individual is expected to take ownership of his/her own progression, at what point does this happen? We have learned that if the motivations are personal, the reinforcement is greatest, but we also learned that those motivations could be diluted with a bit of false reality. At what point do we give the individual the keys to their own success?

There is no magic bullet here. However, this conversation of how motivation/rewards work is one that should occur with every new paddler from the onset his/her first river experience. By giving ownership back to the student, you allow the student to own the experiences that follow making his/her learning that much more impactful. A student who relies solely on the outside influence for receiving and measuring success will ultimately be let down by that expectation as the student is the only passenger in the kayak, and therefore, the only driver for personal experiences.[/col] [/row]

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The longer you paddle, the more likely it is you’ll find yourself in a position of leadership on the river, either by choice or out of necessity. Episode 2 will explore qualities of a good leader as well as oft overlooked considerations to keep paddlers safe and having fun.

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Mastering the basics means understanding our place on the river, and that includes how we fit into the groups with which we paddle. In this episode, we’ll examine the importance of knowing ourselves inside and out- from psychological needs to risk assessment- so that we can be effective members of our paddling crews.

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Dagger Kayaks and H2o Dreams are proud to announce “Whitewater Leadership,” a new series exploring a key component to your best days on the water: great leadership. Join us to discuss everything from how to be an effective member of a group to watersheds and risk management. What’s the one quality a river leader can’t go without?

The building block for the best days on the river is effective leadership, whether overt or implied. The Whitewater Leadership Series is here to get your wheels turning about how we can continue to be safe, have fun, and build tomorrow’s paddlers. We can’t wait to hear from you about your own experiences!

The series idea was born over three years ago after the conclusion of “The Playboater Troubleshooter” series. We were one of the first outfits who had got ourselves into a cycle of providing instructional content via YouTube, and we wanted to keep the trend going. The initial brain child was going to be titled “The Instructor Troubleshooter,” keeping in line with our previous series. The year following, we instead went on a small speaking tour entitled “Taming the Lizard Brain” and posted up a series of articles through the Wave Sport website which have since been lost due to the transition. Don’t worry, we still have them, and we plan to share them to complement this series as well. What we learned, however, was that proficiency in psychology, not just paddling skill, is a necessity for an effective leader… which further led us down the rabbit hole.

[/col] [col width=”1/2″]We have been working on this series in some sort of manner now since the original idea three years ago. We are happy to continue working with the fine folks at Confluence Outdoors through Dagger Kayaks. They continue to empower us in our pursuit in community outreach and education by providing support for the production of our videos. In addition, NRS has been pivotal in keeping us in their dependable threads and equipment; altogether, this allows us to turn our energy on to our projects. I would be remiss to not mention that our company, H2o Dreams, also foots a good portion of the funds to keep these videos rolling out, and we will be excited to continue to share these projects as we move forward.

As we become more ambitious with productions and educational resources, it takes a larger team of folks to complete the task and a great deal of time. It may have been too long since the last series and we feared we may have become irrelevant. Nothing made us feel more wrong when we asked for volunteers for our biggest production weekend. We are fortunate that there are so many others who believe in our vision and support it. Without you, we don’t exist. If you would like to become a part of the process, reach out. We are hiring folks to work with us and will also need volunteer help for projects like this series.

Many thanks to these folks for believing and helping: Chris Loomis, Cheri McKenzie, Chris Gragtmans, Ashley Galloway, Evan Lyendecker, Chris Laskey, Jeremy Worrell, Daniel Lassiter, Andreas Kasprzok, Meagan Skelton, Bryan Hall, Rowan Stuart, Aimee Norris (mama bird), Chad Blotner, Kyle Thomas, Sam Fulbright and of course, my wife, Lydia Cardinal, for putting up with me and being a huge contributor and inspiration during this series. We also have to thank folks who responded to emails and messages to the many questions we had during this time as well as those who volunteered who we had no room for (good problem for us to have). Wendy Krause, you helped spur the whole thing originally with “The Lizard Brain” idea. Thanks to all of the instructors I have had the opportunity to work with over the years and act as sounding boards, but especially Larry Ausley. There are many, many more names that I am leaving out, but if you contributed in any way and want to be acknowledged, call me; I’ll add your name and we can talk about life.

Finally, thank you to the viewers who make it possible for us to pitch these ideas. Keep watching, keep sharing, and never stop learning!

Chris Wing

H2o Dreams Founder and Program Director

P.S. First episode drops next Tuesday :)[/col] [/row]

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All photos courtesy of Chad Blotner Photography