Could it be that consultants have water on the brain these days? How else to explain the deluge of water-themed titles found in the management-and-consulting section of the bookstore? There's "Learning As a Way of Being: Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water" (Jossey-Bass, 1996), by consultant Peter Vaill. Futurist Robert Theobald has written "The Rapids of Change: Social Entrepreneurship in Turbulent Times" (Knowledge Systems, 1987). And finally, there's "The Future of Leadership: Riding the Corporate Rapids into the 21st Century" (Pitman, 1996), by Randall P. White, Philip Hodgson, and Stuart Crainer.
Notice a theme here? Whenever consultants embrace a natural phenomenon with this kind of fervor, the Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) goes on red alert: Just how shipshape is this metaphor?
So we decided to assemble our own crew of experts to see just how seaworthy the whole white-water view of the world really is. Let's meet our "paddle-ists."
David Kendall is an accomplished white-water navigator who recently paddled the upper Ottawa River in Canada. He also acted as chief legal counsel to President Clinton throughout the Whitewater investigation. Next on the crew is extreme adventurer Richard Bangs. Among his aquatic exploits: He led the first descent of 35 rivers, including the Yangtze in China and the Zambezi in southern Africa. Occupying the third seat in the boat is Beth Rypins, international rafting guide and captain of the U.S. women's white-water team (which won first place at the White Water World Championships in two of the past three years).
We chose a water-inspired title and put a question to our crew: Do the precepts in "The Future of Leadership" hold water? Or are the consultants who wrote that book all wet?
The language of leaders: "White water leaders seek out new, fresher and clearer images. Some have highly developed metaphors to describe their own organization."
Kendall: There's the world of consulting for you: plenty of highly developed metaphors and not a lot of substance. Did I try to use "fresh images" during the Whitewater investigation? No, I didn't. I just tried to be direct and effective.
Bangs: There's not a whole lot of room for imagery when you're in white water. Instead, if you're the captain, you want to be as loud as possible: You yell at people a lot.
Rypins: When I'm preparing my clients for a white-water rafting trip, I speak whatever language they will understand. And, believe me, when I'm talking to high-level executives, plain old English doesn't always work.
The risks of the rapids: Good white-water leaders "move towards uncertainty rather than away from it," and "adopt an experimental trial and error approach."
Kendall: Not in my canoe, they don't. In my canoe, leaders do a lot of careful research and logical thinking before making a move.
Bangs: Rafters do not blindly head down a river, eagerly plunging toward unknown perils. River rafting is more about managing risks than it is about taking them. As you approach an obstacle, you get out, walk downstream, and dissect the rapids — as a group. Then, before attempting a run, you set up safety lines. The whole idea is to try to make as few mistakes as humanly possible.
Rypins: Sounds more like the way consultants operate than like the way rafters run rivers. Consultants don't mind taking risks and experimenting: What do they have to lose? But, when I'm on a river, I'm responsible for the lives of my passengers.
The importance of independence: "If you can't trust someone else telling you what to do, what do you do? ... Learn to do it better for yourself and learn to rely on solutions that you have created specifically for your situation."
Bangs: If your leader is taking risks, making mistakes, and seeking out uncertainty, then you're pretty much forced to come up with your own solutions.
Rypins: That's a recipe for absolute anarchy. When you take a seat in a raft, you agree to follow the commands of the captain. If all crew members relied on their own solutions, the result would be chaos.
The desirability of dissension: "White water leaders seek out contention and disagreement."
Kendall: As a Whitewater navigator, I did not seek out contention and disagreement; it sought me out. In politics, you're always looking to avoid dangerous turbulence — and trying to reach calm and peaceful water.
Bangs: I'm sure that there are guides who love to be contentious. But I wouldn't want to lead a trip with that sort of person.
Clearly, the white-water metaphor is not only all wet but also on the rocks. So the CDU tracked down the man who originated the metaphor. Philip Hodgson, a UK-based consultant and a coauthor of "The Future of Leadership," told the CDU how he came up with the metaphor during his one and only rafting trip — a one-day excursion with his family. "Most of the time, I waved a paddle around fairly uselessly," says Hodgson. "My chief responsibility, as far as I could tell, was to inhale water while trying not to spread panic among the rest of the crew."
Another consulting metaphor sinks without a trace. No wonder consultants often find themselves up a creek without a paddle.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2000 issue of Fast Company magazine.