My first white-water rafting adventure was a first for many of us on the raft. In an effort to bond and build team with the church youth group, a number of adults and college-age students chaperoned a trip of high school students to brave the cold waters of the Cheat River in West Virginia. The very first weekends in March promise the best waters melting from the mountain tops, which also create an unpredictable path and experience for us.
At one certain point, the guide cautioned us of an upcoming boulder in the middle of the river. Due to the pace of the river, boulders create anomalies within the current that create "holes" in the river, called eddies. Rather than push objects to the side, they could plunge objects straight downward with great force. The guide instructed us to be cautious of these eddies and that our goal would be to paddle to the right of the boulder. If anyone fell out of the raft, we needed to get the person back inside the raft quickly. If not, he warned us to swim to the right of the boulder; under no circumstances should be proceed to the left.
Feeding off the mix of adrenaline and preliminary stages of hypothermia, we each gave a sign to accept the challenge and secured our footing in the straps. As we turned around the bend, we could hear the roar for the waters. It was as if the waters grew angry as it picked up speed in hopes of slapping the enormous boulder out of its path.
While my obvious anxiety with the potential risks were written all over my face, we all seemed to fear the safety for Andrew, one of the high school students, who literally weighed 98 pounds soaking wet in his wetsuit! As we approached the boulder, a wave crashed against the boat and bounced Andrew right out of the boat. Right away, two students leapt from their seats in hopes of grabbing Andrew back into the boat. These two students were football players, so we felt assured that if they could get their hands on him, they would be able to pluck him up without any problems.
But, the water was too fast and his light weight carried him under the water. What seemed like minutes out of sight, he popped above the waters about 10 feet from the raft. At this point, we knew getting him was no longer an option. As his eyes focused on the upcoming boulder, we started yelling for him to swim to the right. The force of the waters gave him no other option; he was being carried to the left of the boulder.
As we looked over the boulder, we could see why the guide had to told us to go right. Smaller boulders of various sizes littered the path. As if a switch turned on, Andrew gave up trying to swim to the right. Instead, he turned on his back and lifted his legs out of the water; knees bent. He made up his mind to take on the danger and play a game of bumper cars with the boulders.
Our boat made it safely down the river, so all we could do was watch. Andrew's face was determined and showed no fear. He kept his body compact and aimed at the boulders to hit them head on with his feet. When he came into contact with the slippery rocks, he pushed his legs out and bounced towards the side keeping his feet pointed down the river. After a few bounces, he made it! Unscathed and without harm! As he floated down towards us after making it through the cobbled maze, the two football players jumped in to the river. Not as much to save him as much as congratulate him for his heroism - the moment he decided not to compromise and go for the harder path.
As leaders, I find myself constantly at a crossroads in which a choice has to be made. Although I don't like conflict, I realize being at a decision point is inevitable as a leader. And, when this happens, I continually find myself in a position that gets easier when I think about what's really at stake. We realize compromises have to be made at time for the sake of the organization, but I found that leaders can't compromise when it comes to these two areas.
- Don't Compromise On Your Core Values. During the quality improvement area in education, districts took their cues from the business sector to develop vision, mission, and core values. The core values are those invisible intangibles that drive who you are: dependable, reliable, passionate, respected, creative, innovative, inspirational.
- Don't Compromise On What's Best for ALL Kids. Often, leaders seem to begin leading with what's best for kids. But, for some, as leaders are promoted, prestige or security are elevated over what's best for kids.
The purpose of these areas are to serve as a filter or litmus test in determining a course of action when posed with a problem. Although problems come with their own distinct decisions, knowing your core values and asking "What's Best for Kids?" makes decisions that don't conflict with them necessary. Leaders who thrive are those who not only consider these two areas when faced with a decision, but they are transparent about them with others. They model how decisions are made using them in order to continually remind and prove they are real. And, what's even more beneficial is that by making it clear throughout the organization that decisions are made on these two areas, others in the organization and community can anticipate and respond in the moment when faced with decisions of their own. I still think about Andrew and that point of decision as a reminder that leadership does not come without perils, and we need to know our "no compromise".