I remember listening to a sportscaster talking about the World Cup several years ago. They were trying to predict who was going to win. After quite a few possibilities were discussed, the sportscaster said, “But remember, the ball is round, anything can happen.”

He essentially was hedging his bets by reminding his audience that a round ball can bounce in predictable and unpredictable directions. It was his way of saying that underdogs could get an unpredictable bounce and surprisingly win the game.

This metaphor for unpredictability seems appropriate for today’s dynamic complex world. Instead of a round ball, the interconnections and relationships, amplified by media, technology, and the sheer complexity of our world create wildcards on a regular basis. We think we know the key variables when suddenly a new one shows up and disrupts our decision-making models.

whitewater rafting

Leadership in Permanent Whitewater Rapids

Peter Vaill, a management and leadership author in the late 80’s introduced the concept of managing in permanent whitewater rapids. I loved the concept when I first read about it because it captured my role as the vice president at a college.

Picture canoeing across a lake. It starts as a beautiful sunny day, then it clouds up and a squall moves across the lake. The canoeist hunkers down to ride the waves out in the hopes that the sun will reappear and the lake will resume its calm. Permanent white water evokes a picture of a kayaker that is paddling and strategizing on the fly to find the safest passage through turbulent rapids that don’t end. This is what our organizational leadership has become, permanent disruptions and wildcards that require us to notice shifts and consciously reframe the assumptions that inform our decision making.

What Peter told organizational leaders that the old rule of disruption was no longer descriptive of work life. The old rule was that we started with a calm, predictable context, then disruption would happen and once it passed, calm would once more descend.

Try to imagine a kayaker who is riding the rapids that never end. At first, it can be exhilarating, but when your arms start getting tired, what starts out to be exciting becomes about endurance. Secondly, the kayaker needs to stay alert to guide the kayak through constantly changing conditions, finding the best line through the rapids.  Now, it isn’t only the arms that get tired, but the mind as well. Any lack of awareness has consequences, like getting wet, being tossed from the kayak etc.

This image can be daunting, but it is what organizational leaders live through every day. The constantly shifting variables and organizational decision making are the norms. Peter Vaill’s phrase of “managing in permanent white water” captured and foretold what we would be living in 2018.  Having all the time you need to create and implement a plan is in the past.

Businessmen in a Hurry

What are the Strategies that Help us Lead in Times of Whitewater?

In my coaching practice, my clients are leading organizations filled with wildcards. Unpredictable unknowns that can appear without notice and require leaders to adapt their thinking and strategies at a moments notice. Here are some strategies that they have found helpful.

  • Create Points of Pause

To clarify thinking and to be able to see patterns in chaos, hitting the pause button and taking time to find some quiet where they can sit back and reflect on what is happening. It provides a respite from the fast pace. Sometimes slowing down to go fast is the best strategy.

  • Find a Strategic Thinking Partner

Being able to articulate what you see and understand can help a leader move from reflexive action to reflective practice, though sometimes emotions get in the way. Perhaps a surprise triggers an emotional memory of something that didn’t go well and that pain or fear bleeds into the present situation. Having a thinking partner helps balance those emotional triggers and allows us to let them go and see the present situation.

  • Develop Mindfulness

Much has been written about the benefits of meditation. Like the kayaker, developing your brain’s ability to maintain a mindful consciousness helps the paddler see the best line in the pattern of the waves. Mindfulness allows the leader to seek patterns and have the discipline to bring that mindfulness to decision-making.

  • Look for Patterns, not Details

When wildcards, continue to multiply, the old strategy of going down into the details, find the broken part, fix it, and put things back together doesn’t work. When new variables appear on a regular basis, the meaning and strategy to respond are found in the patterns that are occurring in the larger system, not the details.


These four strategies help organizational leaders to increase their stamina, clarity, and strategy when their work lives look more like permanent whitewater than a calm lake with intermittent squalls.

Kathleen E. Allen writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems. She is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. You can sign up for her blog on her website: https://kathleenallen.net/