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What the Rain Can Teach Leaders About Problem Solving

Tim Satterthwaite
March 22, 2023

Soggy Socks

Peering out from under the hood of my rain jacket as water pooled into my boots, I had a peculiar thought: I hope everyone gets the opportunity to get rained on while playing outside. As malicious as that may seem, rain has a lot to teach us about ourselves as leaders. Rain, in all its forms, is the environmental manifestation of challenge. Outside of your control, disheartening, uncomfortable, and problematic, rain changes the operating environment and affects everyone surrounding you.

Having spent the better part of the past four years guiding groups in wilderness areas around the world, I have experienced my fair share of rain. Midwestern thunderstorms, desert deluges, alpine sleet storms, typhoons, and misting mountains. Each storm has been a challenge and a gift. These lessons learned from damp tents and soggy socks have prepared me to tackle problems in all aspects of my life.

Discomfort Will Pass

I watch as the rain steadily fills the bottom of our canoe, soaking us to the core. There is no sign of a break. My rain jacket is saturated. Water drips down my back. The thought of an umbrella in this wet world is laughable. Our outlook is bleak, we are destined to be in the middle of this lake: cold, soggy, and increasingly despondent.

Fast forward a few hours. We are warm, dry, and laughing in our sleeping bags. How could we have been so miserable? Our time in the downpour is nothing but a memory, reinforcing how great we feel now. It isn’t until you’ve been cold and wet that you truly come to appreciate how good it feels to be warm and dry.

Getting caught in the rain is uncomfortable. It can be cold, it is certainly soggy, and for many, it is disheartening. No matter how dismal it may seem at the moment, the discomfort is fleeting. You will be dry again. You will be warm again. As you pull on your dry socks and settle into your tent, you think back to where you were mere hours ago and realize: discomfort is not permanent.

When tackling a problem, an initial feeling of discomfort is natural. In the moment, this discomfort can feel overwhelming and all-consuming. It can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Just remember your dry socks. You will get past it. Looking back from the proverbial shelter of a solution, you will realize that all discomfort is impermanent.

Preparation Is Key

So, you’ve got a great rain jacket. Gore-Tex, armpit vents, breathable, flashy color. The works. The day starts off clear and the jacket gets packed away in the depths of your backpack without a second thought. Next thing you know a storm has rolled in and you are left furiously emptying your pack in the rain as you search in vain for your buried (and now ineffective) jacket.

Gear is only as good as it is accessible. Taking the time to think about what you will do if a rainstorm unexpectedly appears has huge returns (you stay dry) and takes very little effort. Learning to read weather patterns, checking the forecast, investing in solid gear, and packing appropriately allows the intrepid adventurer to handle the elements with confidence.

In day-to-day life as in the outdoors, the ability to look ahead and envision challenges as they might appear is what allows leaders to act swiftly and effectively when confronted with problems. Thinking about the future, and preparing yourself with the required people and tools on hand will set you up for success.

Protect Your People

I once watched a group of five people try to squeeze underneath a single umbrella as a storm rolled through the Yosemite front country. It was fascinating and entertaining to say the least, especially as only one person (the person holding the umbrella) stayed dry in any way. The next campsite over, I watched as another group of five sat, comfortable and dry, underneath a well-constructed rainfly. Two tools, designed with the same intention, with dramatically different results.

When we lead teams through problems, we should not be looking for our “umbrella solution.” An “umbrella solution” is one that succeeds for one but fails for all. Rather, as leaders, we should be looking for “rainfly solutions” which protect your entire team and invite collaboration. This is the path to shared success.

Perspective Shifts

The woods are never as beautiful as they are after rainfall. Sunlight is amplified and refracted through a million hanging raindrops. The wilderness smells new, looks new, and feels new. You emerge from a rainstorm with a new perspective. A new appreciation for the importance of water in the natural world. The experience of riding through a rainstorm changes the way that you think about rain. Similarly, in battling through the thick of a problem, you emerge with a new perspective – a new understanding of what you thought was possible. Perhaps, even a new understanding of what is beautiful. The perspective shift that comes with finding a solution to a complex problem is personal growth. Lean into it and embrace the shift.

So, here’s to you getting soaked in an unexpected rainstorm. It helped me realize the impermanence of discomfort, the location of my rain jacket, the importance of “rainfly solutions” and the beauty of a rain-washed wilderness. I hope the next time you are outside, you get the same chance.

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