Upstream Leadership

A number of years ago, an executive and I were talking about being proactive. This coaching client was frustrated by the level of reactivity from their leadership team and the teams below them. Projects were too often going sideways or derailing, with teams struggling to gain role clarity around their interdependencies and to align team objectives with organizational strategy. The executive found themself getting more and more involved in the team’s work, which didn’t go over well as it was experienced as micromanagement. Sound familiar?

As a way to explore in our coaching the topic of proactivity versus reactivity, I decided to share a parable:

A traveler was walking by a swiftly moving river when they heard a cry for help. Someone was caught in the strong current. The traveler jumped in the river and pulled the person to shore. That’s when they heard another cry for help, so back in the river the traveler went to rescue another person being swept away. As this second person was pulled ashore, another cry for help, so back into the river. This sequence went on all afternoon. The traveler became exhausted and thought to themself, “if only I had the time to go upstream to find out why these people are ending up in the river.”

This upstream – downstream parable is well-known to those in the public health arena and credited to Irving Zola, a medical sociologist. Zola used this story as a way to shift our thinking from a focus on individual health risks and behaviors, which could lead to downstream problems to more societal conditions that would keep people healthy, upstream proactivity.

After hearing the parable, the executive smiled, leaned forward, and said, “So, are you suggesting I’m the traveler?”

I smiled in return and said, “I simply shared a parable I thought might support our work together.  It sounds like you relate to the traveler.”

“Indeed, I do!” the executive replied and then continued, “It feels like I’m in the river constantly rescuing my team after they make a mess of things. Now, how do I get myself and them upstream?”

I commended my client for their “great question,” and asked them to imagine walking upstream after getting a break from pulling team members out of the river—some versions of this story add another rescuer. We got curious together about what we would find upstream. Is someone pushing team members into the swiftly flowing river? Are they slipping in, or even jumping in? We agreed that no matter how people ended up in the river, the consequence was the same—they needed help or even saving. And, the rescuer becomes exhausted from endlessly reacting to events downstream that may have been prevented upstream.

Perhaps the most important question the executive asked themself was:

“How can I be more proactive in leading my team upstream versus downstream?”

Over the course of the coaching engagement, we used the upstream – downstream parable to unlock insights into the executive’s mindsets and thinking about team leadership. We also agreed on how they would experiment with new ways of interacting with their team to encourage and support proactive behaviors. As with all my coaching, the goal is to create the conditions for increased mindful reflection, which can lead to fresh thinking, new learning, and positive behaviors shifts.

Here are some of the coaching learnings and outcomes that resulted from the executive’s efforts in taking their reflections and insights into actions. I’ve added in additional reflections of my own.

Lessons Learned

Upstream thinking and behaviors set the conditions for all downstream results. This painfully obvious universal law of cause and effect that guides our lives is as unalterable as the flow of a river into the sea. That doesn’t mean we anticipate the consequences of our actions. This takes constant effort in being consistently curious and asking questions to create reflective space before rushing to action. This stepping back from the river’s edge allows for present moment realizations that will keep us from being swept away by the current and the space to reflect on questions like:

What are the shifts in my thinking that will create great proactivity from me and my team?

How will I work with my team in ways that help us all pause more for individual and collective reflection?

How will we use our reflection time?

The executive became aware of a mindset and bias toward “figuring it out in real time.” This insight led to scheduling “self-reflection and thinking time” on Monday mornings from 7:30-9am. This time was spent thinking about how to set the best upstream conditions for themself and their team to be successful. Together with their team, the executive shifted how they collectively thought about being proactive and set in motion specific actions to increase proactivity such as:

Revisiting team norms and meeting agendas.

– This included reviewing and aligning around expectations and priorities as a full team.

Engaging in Before Action Reviews in advance of all project work.

– In this way the team could better anticipate downstream consequences from their planned actions.

Building in a stakeholder analysis with every project to understand upstream and downstream effects when working across the enterprise.

We Are Always Upstream and Downstream in a System

We are always upstream and downstream from others in the organizations and systems we work in. Everything we envision and then take action on will have a downstream effect. Everything. Our upstream actions become others’ downstream experiences to deal with and vis-versa.

For executives like my coaching client, it’s crucial to know where they and their teams are in the system, upstream or downstream, especially during periods of excessive organizational change and societal disruption. The aim is to be aware enough of what you are downstream from, like executive team decisions that will impact your team’s resources, or a national election that changes policies that directly affect your business model. It is important to continually ask questions that inform actions and help increase awareness and understanding to where we stand along the river, including:

How can I increase my awareness of where I am in the system (my organization)?

What are the ways of being in touch with the changes that will affect where we are in the system at any point in time?

What are the team practices that will orient us to greater systemic awareness?

How will systemic awareness help us to be more proactive and less reactive?

The executive committed to working on themself, first by training their attention to ground in the present moment. This grounding supported a bolstering of emotion intelligence, which reduced reactive behaviors, like micromanagement. The traditional SWOT Analysis was a practice the executive used with their team to both support general proactivity and as a short cut to understand if they were upstream or downstream. Working with strengths and opportunities are more upstream activities, while acknowledging weakness and threats gives us a way to know what is coming at us in a downstream position. It can also be preventative—the team avoids sending downstream ineffective solutions and problems.

The upstream-downstream parable continues to generate new thinking, shifts in behavior, and new actions for my coaching clients and me around how to be more proactive. Whether we are floating or struggling in the river or on the shore, it’s critical to reflect on our experiences as this is the only way we learn and change.