Lessons on Leadership: Reflections from the River

DuFour’s popularized leadership motto regarding the ‘banks of the river’. The metaphor of benchmark testing as ‘stream sampling for water quality’. The notion that ‘you can never step in the same river twice’. In educational discussions, we use the metaphor of “the river” quite often, and for good reason. But how often do we examine these idioms? How often do we truly listen to what it is we are saying?

En route to the weekly grocery store run last weekend, I decided to take a detour, pulling off to a little put-in spot just off of the Rivanna River here in central Virginia. I felt a need to go to the river and just listen to it. I wanted to listen to it and take in whatever it had to say. Thankfully, it said a lot: the five lessons I “heard” lie below.


Lesson 1: The river is much higher than the last time I visited, and seems to be moving much faster today than it normally does. To give you an idea of the differences, the photos above were taken in March 2012 and July 2011, respectively. I attribute the rapid water flow to the recent rainfall and melted snow that have collected upstream and danced their way to this spot in the path. It reminds me that this river is a part of a larger system, one piece in an extended watershed that is impacted greatly by its surrounding environment. It makes me wonder, how often do we lead teams right into the path that we have have navigated so many times before, only to find that it has been deeply affected by the enviroment around it?


Lesson 2: Because of this increased volume of water, all of the spots that we explored last summer lay buried beneath the river’s surface. These pictures and all of those following are only from this more recent trip. As you can see, the water has covered the land completely- until the water upstream has found its way down the path, I have no chance to make it to those reflective islands and peninsulas I remember, as they do not yet exist. 

Looking further across the river, I see one patch of land that has emerged above the surface of the water. On it, the flock of birds coming to this river for sustenance have collected, bunched together on the tiniest of resting places. It goes to show that no matter what happens, there is a place to stop and survey the scene, even if those places of respite are fewer in number and farther between than would be in ideal conditions.


Lesson 3: While the banks of the river help to define its boundaries, the river’s bed seems to dictate the river’s movement at the surface. For example, I notice a huge dip in the surface of the river just before the spot where a white water rapid breaks. The stream moves fastest there in the middle, while on the outskirts its flow is interrupted by brush, eddy currents, and its general lack of momentum. As important as the banks of the river are to direct the path, I had never wondered how the river’s bed would be represented in the metaphor, and how key it must be to the stream’s environment.


Lesson 4: White water turbulence shows up in the spots where large boulders hide just beneath the surface. While I have that baseline knowledge already, I only know in this case because I saw those obstacles there last year, when the river itself was more shallow. While I can’t directly see these obstacles that lie ahead If I were traveling from upstream, I could see their effect on the upcoming environment, and plan to steer clear.

Another note of interest: while dangerous for a traveler, this white water spot also provides the prototypically calming sound of the flowing river. Without this turbulence, the river itself would be near silent. There is something important about this idea, that overcoming the biggest obstacles in the path can also provide the deepest level of calm.


Lesson 5: It took a while to get here from where I entered the park. Finding the stream was a journey in and of itself. While walking the path set in front of me, I considered the experience of whoever the pioneer was who decided to lay gravel on this particular pathway. What did this path look like before it was set up so clearly for me?

Added note: Entering the path that would take me to the stream, I noticed an observation deck, recently built to allow those on the path toward the river to catch a glimpse of what they will find once they reach it. It reminds me of the importance of ensuring that those on the journey have a glimpse of the destination. In fact, that afternoon, a landscaping crew had begun clearing the shrubbery and still-standing-but-dead trees (which I recently learned are called ‘snags’) to allow for folks to see the view of the river from the deck. Not only must we build these “observation decks”, we must maintain the view – otherwise, how likely is anyone to join us on the journey?


A friend of mine hates idioms. If it starts with, “Well, you know what they say…” she refuses to say it, predominantly because she does not know exactly what it was originally intended to mean. As mentioned before, we tend to use a lot of metaphors and other idioms around rivers in relationship to leadership. Every once in a while, it’s important to consider what it is we are saying versus what we intend to say. I am thankful to have experienced this opportunity to consider exactly what it is the river can tell us about ourselves, if only we take the time to listen.

One thought on “Lessons on Leadership: Reflections from the River

  1. This river is murky, yet feeds into a wider river that is clear enough to see the bottom. The clarity of both rivers is affected by outside forces and seasons. It reminds me of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha- realization of here-and-now truths as well as enlightenment through river metaphor.

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