4 leadership lessons that surfing can teach about unlocking your potential and power as a leader
I’m that surfer that good surfers can’t stand because I’m a wave-top traffic hazard. After 25 years in San Diego, I’m still a novice surfer because it’s way harder than it looks, and besides I’ve spent most of my free time scuba diving below the water.
But surfing is a seductive challenge; it looks effortless but is quite demanding, seems simple but requires remarkable coordination, and sounds like fun but consumes major energy. Oh, yeah, I’ve also just described the role of a leader. Surfing, like leading, forces me to become intimately aware of my skill, attitude, and limiting beliefs. While I’m a poor surfer, I am a deeply seasoned Leadership Consultant for the past 17 years, and I’m going to share four lessons leaders should know in order to harness the power and opportunity of their role.
1. Discipline is NOT a dirty word
I’m nervous, uncertain, and doubtful while I surf: about my abilities, other surfers, ocean conditions, and marine life (darn you, Steven Spielberg…). It’s that anxiety, in fact, that turns to joy and excitement when my discipline pays off and I finally catch a wave at the right angle and speed.
Discipline (which originates from disciple – a learner), has become narrowly associated with punishment. But a surfer without discipline can’t get any better, and a leader without discipline can’t evolve. Rather than constricting, think about discipline as the growth and development that forms competitive advantage – learning, innovation, agility, and adaptability. Discipline isn’t a burden, it’s your internal focus on the process of making powerful and forward-focused decisions.
2. Attuning to Dynamic Power
I feel the power of the roiling ocean beneath me and know that I can only respond to the wave — not control it. I have to align with the surging pressure of the swell and ignore thoughts of past mistakes or future successes (I could show you my scars from distracted moments). I have to make rapid choices in the water – leaning forward to align and accelerate, leaning back when I’m too far ahead, or swaying left or right to go with the roll of the wave.
Your belief that leadership capacity emanates from individual intelligence, charisma, or connections is a limiting one. Your leadership power builds when you connect with the dynamic power of people, possibilities, and plans. Leading and surfing require high-risk decisions in a low-data environment, and work out well when you practice responsiveness, attentiveness, and openness.
Narcissists believe that power is a personal treasure that flows from them. Real, viable power, however, comes when your individual contributions connect with the energy of a team that’s focused on accomplishing a worthwhile goal. When you embrace the reality that power is more than personal attributes, you’ll tap into a renewable source for your resolve, creativity, and success.
3.The Edge of the Swell
My shoulders and biceps burn and ache as I paddle hard and fast, again and again, to get to the front edge of the swell (which I miss more than catch) – if I miss the edge I get stuck in a bobbing pattern, not surfing. Movement and speed are at the edge of the swell, and I get there by investing energy and effort.
Leaders who accomplish admirable financial or social results learned to paddle hard toward the edge of the wave — the edge of their comfort zone, really. Your comfort zone is a mental and emotional boundary that delineates an imaginary edge to your leadership, and the energy and effort required to expand that boundary feels like burn and ache. Your untapped power and opportunity lie beyond this edge, and you have to work through your unconscious and rehearsed patterns and limiting habits to become more empowered. Because our ego mind is programmed to safety and pattern repetition, we get to tap possibility through perseverance. To create new possibilities for you and your people you challenge your old habits of thought, speech, or behavior. New achievements require new ability, resources, application, and deliverables, all of which are beyond your comfort zone.
4. Focus and Intent
I’m still surprised that the intense focus of surfing is also deeply relaxing. When I set my intent on a swell, I lock into a series of rapid-fire decisions in order to catch the edge, get on my feet, and respond to the wave. The wave-top is an unforgiving and uncaring liquid wall, and standing on it calls for focus and intent in the moment-to-moment series of real-time choices. When I nail it I feel excitement and a sense of flow – a spiritual high and transcendent experience of oneness.
Leadership flows from focus and intent. So where is your focus and what is your desirable outcome and vision? Your ability to respond and align is meaningful in the context of a forward-looking point of reference. This is the root of your discipline – asking yourself, “Is this choice I’m about to make taking me closer to or further away from my goal?” When you make deliberate choices toward your intent not only do you demonstrate discipline, you also cultivate flow and energize your path of success.
I’m keeping my day job, for sure, but I’m still seduced by the siren call of the surf. The essential lesson of leadership effectiveness is also the essential nature of surfing – paradox. When you embrace the nuances of grayscale over the comfort of black and white, when you effectively combine discipline of intention and spontaneity of execution, you will smoothly and powerfully surf toward better decisions, deeper connections, and greater results.
View the author’s TEDx talk: