When we returned to Hawaii after 13 years away, one of the first things I wanted to do was get back on my surfboard. After a little shopping around I found the perfect board: a basic, reasonably priced board, and then set off to re-conquer the Hawaiian surf. It would take several months of trying before my body remembered the lessons I’d learned a decade ago, but now I’m confidently riding the waves again. I learned and re-learned a few things while I was recovering my surfing legs, and those lessons are just as applicable to leadership as they are to surfing.
1. Paddle Out Often
You can’t learn to surf sitting on your couch watching surf videos, and you can’t lead people from behind your desk. Like surfing, leadership requires a commitment of time in order to be any good at it. When I returned to the ocean I expected the skills I’d developed a decade ago would return “like riding a bike,” but I still had to put in the time and struggle a bit before I got it. Surfing requires time to build arm strength and technique for the paddle, and leadership requires time to build real relationships with the people you lead. The leadership lesson from surfing is to engage with your people.
2. Keep Your Eye on the Waves
It’s an old adage to “never turn your back on the sea;” the reason it’s an old adage is because it’s true. Not every wave is identical to the one preceding it and you can be surprised easily by a wave coming out of nowhere to thrash you. However, if you’re watching the waves you can turn your board and paddle into them. Some of my best rides have come from that odd wave in the set that no one saw coming but me. Leaders have to keep their heads up and eyes on the horizon to scan for potential trouble…and potential opportunity. The leadership lesson from surfing here is to paddle into trouble, be alert and don’t let trouble sneak up and thrash you!
3. Choose the Right Board for the Conditions.
To non-surfers all boards probably look basically the same, but even casual surfers know you match the board to the conditions. Short boards are for shore breaks and fast breaks, long boards are best suited for slow rollers, and “guns” are best for the really big waves. When a person takes up the sport they will invariably start out with a long board, then progress to a “stable” of boards for varying conditions. When leading people the effective leader is the one who can match the work with individual skills and needs. Like choosing the right board, choosing the right person can be the difference between and “epic ride” and a “wipeout.” The leadership lesson from surfing, then, is to match the person (or team) to the “conditions” so their strengths contribute to an “epic ride.”
“…choosing the right person can be the difference between and ‘epic ride’ and a ‘wipeout.'”
4. Don’t Fight the Current
It’s a cliché that surfers are some of the most laid back and easygoing people you’ll ever meet, but there’s some truth to that. I think the reason is because really serious surfers are good at reading the wind and waves while waiting for that perfect time to drop in. They know when to conserve their energy and know when to sprint into the right wave. Leadership at senior levels is often about being patient enough to know when to engage and when to let subordinates work. The leader who is busy fixing everyone’s problems and participating in everyone’s discussions will wear himself out very quickly. Like the surfer who chases every wave instead of patiently watching and waiting for the right time, the over-engaged leader will be exhausted when it’s really important to be fresh. The leadership lesson from surfing is to spend your energy wisely.
5. Have Fun
Surfing isn’t supposed to be work; it’s supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun you’re probably doing it wrong. The rush of dropping in on the perfect wave then standing up while the ocean carries you is a thrill that’s hard to describe. That first wave when you get a real ride is worth all the hard work you spent getting there in the first place. So it is with leading people: if you’re not having a good time then you’re probably doing it wrong. Leaders can come in all personality types, including introverts, but leaders can’t fail to make their work and the work of those around them as enjoyable as possible. Trust me, if you’re not having fun nobody else will either! The leadership lesson from surfing, then, is to have a good attitude and have fun (and make sure you’re not the reason nobody is having fun!)
1. Schedule “walking around time” to be sure you get out and interact with those you lead.
2. Look for ways to make the work as enjoyable, or even fun, as possible.