Leadership on the River

What do plastic bottles, tires and rims, Styrofoam and used hypodermic needles all have in common? The answer is, these are all things you find in varying quantities when you volunteer to pick up trash along the riverbanks. And you would be amazed by how much other stuff there is.

There I am - front left.

There I am – front left.

I recently hitched up with a wonderful group of people from Living Lands and Waters. They are very clear on what they do, and that is they clean up America’s waterways. To be more specific, they are out on the country’s riverbanks picking up garbage, from pop cans to refrigerators, and everything in between. They dig buried tires out of the sand, and cut them out of tree roots. (We hauled away just over 70, many requiring a lot of digging and multiple hands and legs to move them). They pick up propane tanks, and rebar, and PVC pipe. Sometimes they may even get out the saws in order to cut things down to manageable pieces. I discovered, as did the other volunteers, that this is no easy task. And these people do it every day, in the heat and the cold, with or without volunteers. And I feel privileged to have been part of this.

I came across the organization’s founder, Chad Pregracke, many years ago when I saw a story on his work on a morning news magazine. I have followed them ever since. If any of you reading this have been to one of my Leadership Challenge Workshops, you are probably remembering the video of Chad and crew, cleaning up the Mississippi River. I show the video, because it is one of the most real examples of genuine leadership I have come across in a long time. After showing the video, I ask people if Chad is a leader. The answer is a resounding yes, for a number of reasons which we discuss. For Chad has figured out how to get others “to want to struggle” for a shared vision – which is part of our definition of leadership. Somehow, he and the crew find a way to entice volunteers like me to look forward to joining them on the river, when it is nearly 90 degrees, so humid you can cut the air, and when there is not a wisp of air on the riverbank. And don’t forget all of the mushy sand and mud, and of course the special “bouquet” of garbage and pools of stagnant water.

And the crew is clearly “in the boat” on this mission. They are extremely helpful, smiling, making jokes, coming up with clever solutions to sticky problems, and physically working extremely hardtires. Their level of employee engagement is off the chart, in spite of what they do and the conditions in which they do it.

Here is the bottom line. True leaders create a culture of great performance and meaningful work. They help people find pride in their work, and make even lousy work (by many peoples’ standards) enjoyable. Leaders make others feel important and needed. And they give them the opportunities to make contributions to something worthwhile.

So how are you doing at inspiring others to want to struggle with you, for you or around you? You won’t find the keys to more devoted effort from focusing simply on pay, benefits, or even plush working conditions. These seldom if ever have any kind of lasting impact. Instead, try giving people opportunities to make a difference in something they care about, make it enjoyable for them, and treat them with the respect and honor they deserve. Get better at these and watch the energy, problem solving, fellowship, and production grow.

Bravo to all the good people at Living Lands and Waters . You are making a difference. And, I hope many of you reading this will check them out and learn more about what they do.

All the best, and lead on.


  1. Jodi Landers says

    This is a great reminder of how necessary the “want to struggle” is within teams!

    • It is a great reminder – and surprising how much fun it can be, even when the work is hard. Oh, and about 80,000 pounds of trash collected in 8 days. Great fun and great results. Pretty good combination. Nice hearing from you.

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