Leadership Effectiveness & the Parable of the River

You ARE a leader.

It doesn't matter if you are a manager in an organization, a parent, or simply make daily decisions regarding your own life.

Now, you may choose to not listen to your inner leader, instead taking the easier path of following the actions of others.

Many who do this find that it gets them into trouble eventually.

Or, you may misinterpret your inner leadership voice for the need to control others and fall into the trap of micro-management.

Many who do this also find that it gets them into trouble eventually.

So...how can you be an effective leader of yourself and others without going too far to one extreme or the other?

To explain this, we have created what we call the "Parable of the River".


In a previous article, I discussed the difference between leadership and management.

I defined a manager as anyone whose role it is to "manage" how the organization's resources are used.

This doesn't just apply to the workplace but also family resources, such as time and money.

On the other hand, I defined a leader as someone who gets the most out of themselves and others by establishing positive, productive, respectful relationships.

By this definition, a "manager" is someone who feels he or she must be in control of their life.

A leader, on the other hand, recognizes that controlling life isn't the goal...responding to it in a calm, positive way in order to get the most out of it is. 

In fact, leadership effectiveness is undermined by excessive control.

This is better understood when we illustrate it with our "Parable of the River".



The Parable of the River was first developed to illustrate the Law of Cooperative Action to audiences as a part of the various seminars we have conducted on behalf of companies and associations. 

A version of it goes as follows:

Imagine you are on a raft traveling down a river.

The river has a strong current that moves you swiftly along.

As the current takes you further down river, you pass through sections of that are open and clear of obstacles.

You find the leisurely trip comfortable and relaxing.

As you round the next bend, you see a series of rapids and large rocks in the distance.

As the current continues to move you closer to the rapids, you notice you are being carried closer and closer towards one of the large rocks jutting out of the water.

Recognizing your safety is at risk, you quickly consider your options.

Your first instinct is to curse the river...to scream at it, "why are you doing this to me?"

You drop down to your knees, plunge your hands into the water, and try to paddle away from the rock.

You paddle as hard as you can away from the rock, only to find your course has shifted towards a different rock.

Again, you paddle as hard as you can away from the second rock, and find yourself heading back towards the original one.

No matter how hard you paddle, your attempt to reach safety fails. The rock grow closer.

Next, you look at the river itself as if willing the current to change directions and move you away from the rocks.

It doesn't.

Throwing your hands up in despair, you become angry at yourself for getting on the raft in the first place and wonder why things like this always happen to you.

You move faster, continuing towards the rocks.

Realizing that crashing into the rocks in inevitable, you sit down on the raft and position yourself so that you protect your head. 

The raft hits the rocks...you feel yourself slam into the side of one and a wave of pain hits you but then subsides.

Your raft is then spit out the other end of the rapids, away from the rocks, and the river is once again calm.

You made it. You are battered and bruised but you are alive.

Now...it is time to reflect.


Consider this, whether you are a manager or not...whether you are responsible for the performance of others or simply yourself.

The river represents the actions and behaviour of others.

No matter how hard you try, you cannot control them.

Micro-managers will try...and just as paddling against the current with your hands failed, so too will this.

Attempting to exert too much control will, at best, swap one problem for another...likely many more.

It can also be easy for managers to blame.

Throwing your hands up (metaphorically or literally) in frustration and despair does little to resolve any workplace problem.

Blaming those you manage for failure, mistakes, and challenges is like blaming the river for the current and the placement of the rocks. 

All blaming others will do is increase your problems and move you faster towards your source of doom.

So...realizing you cannot control the actions and behaviour of others (the current) and blaming others accomplishes nothing...

As a manager, becoming a leader, all you can do is control your own behaviour and actions to neutralize the impact of the problem you are facing...and the amount of pain caused by it.

You choose if you want to over-react, making a fool of yourself and losing the trust and respect of your people by throwing them under bus...just as you choose to travel towards the rocks face first.

Or, you choose to support your people...putting your effort into serving them...holding them and yourself accountable in a fair and balanced way.

Either way, as a manager, you will inevitably hit some rocks...and it will hurt. 

It is up to you, however, to make choices that will affect how much this hurts and whether you allow this temporary pain to become a permanent injury.


This parable applies to your personal life as well.

People are rarely controlling in their professional life but easy-going in their personal life.

...And a person who is controlling in their personal life is a person with strained, damaged, and eroded personal relationships...

With family, friends, neighbours...pretty much everyone.

People who are controlling tend to share a common trait...fear.

Typically, the more controlling of others a person tries to be, the more afraid they are that if they don't control other people (or situations), it will result in something that will reflect poorly on them; that they will get into trouble; etc.

So, the lesson of the parable on your personal life is this: Be in control without being controlling.

Accept that you are going to hit rocks in life.

No matter how much you try to control others to avoid this, you will fail.

The secret to a happy, productive life isn't one of avoiding life's problems, but rather one of making choices to effectively deal with them.

It is studying the river proactively, ahead of time, to know before you get on the raft if there are rocks and rapids.

It isn't constantly trying to paddle away from the rocks....it is accepting that you are likely going to hit the rocks and then calmly deciding how to minimize the damage.

It isn't throwing your hands up in despair and adopting the victim mentality where you think that if you don't have complete control then you are entirely powerless...

It is recognizing that you have 100% control over your own choices, your own actions, and your own behaviour.

And while this control may not prevent you from hitting life's rocks, both big and small, it gives you the power to reduce the blow and minimize the pain and damaged caused.

When you recognize and accept this fact, you will no longer experience the high levels of stress, anxiety, and fear that people who live under the false belief that...with enough effort...they CAN control the current of the river...


Just as you cannot control the current of a river, you cannot control the current of life.

Others will do as they do.

Life will happen as it happens.

Stop trying to control either of these.

Instead, focus your energy where you can have influence...

On controlling your OWN actions and behaviour.

The sooner you realize that calmly controlling how you respond to the river's current is the key to a happy, successful life, the sooner you will improve your leadership effectiveness.

Learn how the Law of Cooperative Action Personal Mastery Program can change how you see your world.