Waterfall Leadership

by Dan Reiland

When they told us we could climb a 1,000 foot waterfall I had images of Niagara Falls in my mind and thought, “That’s not such a good idea.” Convinced otherwise by my family, it turned out to be one of the highlights of our vacation.

We were in Ocho Rios, Jamaica and signed up for the waterfall climb (Dunn’s River Falls) and beach party. It was way too much fun. In some of the most natural and beautiful Jamaican landscape (I would call it “friendly jungle”) we gathered up with about twenty others, paid our money, and got assigned our guides.

The falls were huge, with fast moving water over large boulders. But the naturally-terraced effect with pools of water to play a few times up the climb made it easy enough even for little kids. Well, mostly easy. There were a few scraped ankles and bruised toes, but hey, we need something to make it sound really cool.

The main guide, a tall and fit Jamaican with a great sense of humor stood before us and said “I am your leader, if you do what I tell you and follow me you will get soaking wet and have a great time.” We all stood there and just looked at him. He said, Hey Mon, this is Jamaica and you’re going to have fun… when I talk to you, you respond with a big and loud “Yeah Mon!!” So we did and there was something oddly fun about a bunch of out-of-shape Americans pretending to be Jamaicans that did make the whole thing more fun!!

He then instructed us that we were to hold hands and form this sort of long line of people connected by a rope – the rope being made of our hands and arms. It was counterintuitive at first, but it was only when we let go and picked our own rocks to climb on did we slip some and scrape a knee. OK, that I slipped and scrapped a knee. The kids seemed to do fine as the “big kids” dragged them up the rocks they couldn’t quite get themselves.

Only a preacher would come up with leadership thoughts as he made his way up this fun climb! So, are you ready Mon? Here’s where you say “Yeah Mon!”

Someone who has traveled only one step farther than you knows something valuable that you don’t yet know.
It’s difficult to put a price tag on experience, even when it’s only a few seconds beyond what you have accomplished. Every step mattered in our climb up the falls. A little to the left and you slip, a little to the right and you step in a deep hole. The leader went first and each person followed – one step at a time.

As a leader you don’t have to know all the answers, you just need to know the next step and take it successfully. If you do, others can safely follow. Trust is a big deal. They are counting on you to make the right choices.

If you are following, don’t expect your leader to know the entire plan – just the next step. The only reason our Jamaican guide knew every step so well is because he had completed this trip hundreds of times. This is the luxury of a leader repeating his journey. This is not the life of a church leader who, if they are truly making progress, is constantly navigating new waters.

It’s not the steepness of the climb it’s the speed of the water.
There were only a couple sections that were steep and long enough to make you quietly think… “Okay, here we go.” The surprising thing was that those sections weren’t really that big a deal. The real issue was the speed of the water. You would think that the water would run faster down the steeper sections, but the way it bounced off the boulders made it play unexpected tricks on you. I quickly learned that you can see the boulders but you can’t see the current.

Isn’t that the way it is in leadership? It’s what you can’t see that can trip you up, cause you to lose footing and stumble. It might be a turn in a relationship, a flip in the economy or change in current culture. You didn’t see it coming and boom. This is why I stay in touch with my mentors. They see things I don’t see and keep me from stepping in places I shouldn’t.

When you want to let go and climb on your own, it’s probably a mistake.
My first instinct was to let go of the person’s hand in front of me and try to grab onto the next rock to stabilize myself. Each time I did that, I lost my footing. There was a reason the guide lead us the way he did. Many leaders are entrepreneurs. They are visionaries and cut their own path. That’s good, but within limits. All good leaders must be willing to take a hand and be a good follower at some point. (And usually this is required at many points.)

It’s great when a leader steps out to find his or her own path, but there is something about the body of Christ and being a Christ-follower that puts boundaries on a leader’s climb. It’s interesting to note that it’s rarely at the lower levels of the climb that leaders get in trouble. It’s often after some success that leaders begin to call their own shots and then fall. Note to self. Keep holding on, first to the Father, then to others who have traveled before you and with you.

The person behind you is depending on you.
This one seems obvious, but when the water is cold and you’ve slipped a couple times, it’s easy to focus on getting yourself to the top – forgetting about the person behind you.

This happened a few times to our crew. I won’t say which one, but one of my kids said: “The person behind me was too slow, if I held on to them, I’d either stop the whole group or get pulled back down.” In the immediate moment that seemed true. But from the big picture it couldn’t be farther from the truth. It was in the letting go that everyone had to stop and wait. Holding on cost us all a few seconds, letting go cost minutes.

Each person was counting on the person in front of them to hold on and not let go. The guy in front of me let go only once, and I immediately lost confidence in him for the remainder of the trip. It wasn’t a big deal, this was a fun waterfall climb, but it made me think about situations that were serious and much was at stake. I want to count on the person in front of me.

So let me ask you. Can the person behind you count on you to hold on?

What looks difficult at the bottom will often seem much easier at the top.
When we all got to the top of the falls, the climb seemed infinitely easier than when we looked up from the bottom. In fact, from the bottom, you couldn’t see even half of what was to come. After getting to the top it seemed like a piece of cake. It was definitely fun, but there was no real passion to do it a second time.

Leadership depends on us raising up other leaders. To be a good leader of leaders, a good leadership mentor, you must be willing to go back to the starting point and help others make the climb. One of the things that made the Jamaican guides so good was they gave each group 100% of their enthusiasm. For them, it was up the waterfall one more time. For us, it was a once in a lifetime family memory. You do the math.

That’s what leaders do, add passion to the trip. We inspire even when we’ve been there and done that. And that’s good news, because we’re all counting on someone to do the same for us! Yeah, Mon!

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland’s free monthly e-newsletter, “The Pastor’s Coach,” available at www.INJOY.com. This information cannot be used for resale in any manner. Copyright 2008, INJOY 3760 Peachtree Crest Dr, Ste A, Duluth, GA 30097

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