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EP: 55 – Lessons from the River with Joe Jacobi

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Introduction: Joe Jacobi is an Olympic Gold Medallist, winner of America’s first ever Olympic Gold Medal in Whitewater Canoe Slalom in Barcelona in 1992. Joe is also a performance coach with Valor Performance Inc. helping Leaders & Teams perform at their best without compromising their lives. Joe writes and has a blog called Sunday Morning Joe where he shares his wisdom, insights and lessons learnt from the river in a post every week. 

Show Notes

Podcast episode Summary: How to transfer ideas learnt on the river operating as a high performance athlete to Leaders, teams and organisations looking to improve performance. Joe uses the River as a metaphor either on the river in rafts or in a conference room or both to build better performance, to encourage the adoption of better mindsets, strategies and ultimately cultures of excellence. Joe often employs unconventional paths to learning, counterintuitive frameworks for rethinking approaches in a manner that is easily transferable. 

Points made throughout the Episode: 

  • Joe opens the conversation by sharing that he is currently writing on a very particular theme and will do so for the next six months. The theme is “The Pursuit of contentment on the River of Uncertainty” 
  • Joe shared his knack for being able to check-in with himself to wonder about his performance in the pursuit of objectives from a very early age. 
  • Joe was fortuitous enough to have grown up in Washington DC, the home of top performance culture for Whitewater River Slalom Canoeing on the Patomic River
  • He grew up surrounded by top performers and coaches. 
  • He was never attracted to the Olympics in fact the sport was only reinstated as an Olympic sport in 1989. That allowed him experience the river with a focus on being the best he could be along with friends who were interested in paddling against the backdrop of the amazing culture on the Patomic River. 
  • Today the sport is very attached to the Olympics and the values of winning and results. 
  • Joe enjoyed a long career in his chosen sport and returned to the Olympics in 2004 when he was aged 34. He also ran a Gold Medal Kayak Camp that allowed him grow as a teacher and coach, giving voice to the River in a meaningful way. 
  • In 2008 he was the Olympic commentator for the sport for NBC, a position that kept him connected to the sport and to the many top performing athletes. He was the Global story teller for the sport. 
  • The River,  Joe shares has been his best life coach and his C2 partner (Scott) his best relationship coach. He learnt how to communicate, mostly non-verbally, how to respect difference and leverage their combined difference with respect to other Olympic teams. The work was often hard and testing and they did rely on a sports psychologist.
  • Today Joe talks about Rocks as the challenges we face in Corporate life and the counterintuitive task of befriending them. 
  • This lesson is not just philosophical but grounded in an understanding of Maths, Science and Hydrology. 
  • Another idea or lesson is the use of the “paddle” Joe explains that it is important to assess where you can draw energy without overusing the power of the paddle and shares how that approximates in corporate life in the patience, posture, understanding of physiology and mindset. 
  • Teams often want to be synchronised and that means going slower, certainly initially to see “the paddle strokes” Not an easy lesson to practice. 
  • By paddling slowly and together teams can respond to uncertainty appropriately. 
  • Teams have to understand how they operate at lower cadence and at higher cadence when needed but importantly not to always operate at one speed. 
  • Teams therefore have to get honest with each other and figure out how to navigate the “River” of their businesses effectively. 
  • Important to appreciate how to rest, how to use down time and to manage energy. 
  • Joe would like to see workplaces be more compassionate, to allow people to be vulnerable to share what is going on outside of the hours of work so as to manage their energy over time. 
  • How do Leaders encourage people to have the confidence and trust to say when they are “off” to nurture reciprocal kindness. 
  • Love, safety and belonging are basic human needs on teams. Yet many Leaders practice Fear, Control and Duality thinking. 
  • Leaders need to be congruent between what they espouse and how they act. 
  • River Mapping is an exercise that Joe employs to provide a powerful way to explore a team’s approach to business objectives. The River allows for a different language and way to communicate that is often more open and honest. 
  • Covid-19 saw Joe lose a parent, his Father died in May of 2020 and Joe had to manage that loss from afar. It also saw him work with a group of High Performing Surgeons 
  • Joe reminds us of the need to see the human in front of us and to remember the lost art of connection and communication. 
  • Covid has meant remote working and zoom life for many of us and that has often blurred the buffers we used to rely on. In parting Joe shares some simple tips to manage energy while using zoom and to find ways to create buffers for energy restoration 

Resources shared 


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