5 Leadership Mantras I Learned on My Surfboard

SURF

A few years ago I tackled something that I had put off for years.  While on vacation I signed up for a  surfing lesson.  From that moment, I have been hooked.  

Surfing has become my passion but is far from my profession.  I am, and likely will forever be, a novice.  In my mind, I embody the spirit and coolness of Bodhi from “Point Break.”  In reality, I am afraid I look more like Gary Busey’s character from that movie!  

Regardless of how I look or perform, surfing has a firm place of importance in my heart.  I search for excuses to make the journey to the ocean.  Every day when I walk past my board in my garage I feel it pulling me towards the coast.

Not only is surfing my favorite lifestyle activity, it has also served as a teacher for me.  I have learned how to fall without being hit in the head by my board.  Now I know that it is not cool to be walking into the water only to trip over your leash.  Yes, that happened.  Due to the wax on the board, I learned you suffer incredible amounts of nipple chafing!  Yes, I said nipple chafe.  It is real and it is gloriously painful.  There are few things worse in life than that mixed with salt water!  Ouch!

While some lessons have been practical, many have served to remind me of leadership truths.  I want to share with you 5 mantras of leading people I have learned on my surfboard.

1. Go public before it is perfect.

For more years than I can count I wanted to learn to surf.  Instead, I would sit on the beach and watch others do what my heart longed for.  I was afraid to try something new, get something wrong or look like a fool.  Surfing has taught me that the best way to learn anything is to start doing it. 

Leaders want to be perfect.  The problem is that perfectionists are never perfect, but they are always frustrated.  Perfection keeps us from going public with a plan or launching a new endeavor until we have all of the kinks worked out.  Sadly, that day will never come.  Some of you have incredible dreams still sitting on a shelf collecting dust because you are waiting until it is just right.  

Anything worth doing is started and then adjusted along the way.  Google calls this the “beta phase.”  Heck this is even refelcted in their name.  Originally they were named “Backrub.”  Funny, huh?  I discovered my passion by surfing before I knew how to surf.  The world is waiting for what you have to offer, not for you to be perfect.  Verbalize your dream to someone, launch your product, start a new ministry, take steps before you have funding. Get off of the beach and into the water.

2. Storms create legends.  

Real surfers show up during storms.  Hurricane season brings the best waves.  When everyone else retreats from the beach, legit surfers flock to it.  Stories are told of massive storm surges and waves that are ridden.  Unknowns become icons because of how they perform during a storm.  

Leaders face storms.  To wish that every situation will be filled with ease and peace is to be naive.  Part of your value is in how you perform when there is uncertainty.  Andy Stanley says that leadership is “managing tension.”  When others do not know what to do, run towards the problem.  Leading through storms buys credibility.  

You are going to face pain.  People are going to leave your team.  Issues are going to arise.  There will be times you will mess something up.  When difficult times occur, do not shrink back but look for the opportunity.  Every difficult moment can provide you moments to shine.  

3. Bravery paves the way to greatness.

Fear keeps people out of the water.  The ocean can be frightening.  Beneath me, in the water, I have seen a school of stingray and jellyfish, and I know there are sharks around.  Once while paddle boarding a school of dolphin swam along beside me.  The first time those dorsal fins emerged out of the water, I was a wee bit terrified.  

Leaders are summoned to confront fearful situations.  Bravery is not ignoring fear, it is moving forward in the face of it.  We have zero control of what lies beneath the uncharted waters that we lead people into.  Our calling is not safe but requires courage.

While not discounting your fear, I want to you challenge you to move forward in the face of it.  What decision scares you to death?  Make it.  Is there a conversation you have put off for too long?  Have it.  Do you need to raise a standard of excellence on your team?  Do it.  Be brave and be great.

4. Chaotic leaders repel; calm leaders attract.  

Seasoned surfers have great patience.  They sit on their board waiting for the right wave.  Conversely, you can spot novices who frantically paddle after every wave.  At the end of the day, veterans have energy left over and some great rides to speak of.  Rookies are exhausted and maybe stood up on a smaller wave or two.  

Leaders lose credibility due to a chaotic demeanor.  Good leaders have a non-anxious presence.  In peaceful conditions or difficult situations, they are steady.  Remaining steady during stress gives others confidence.  Calm people are trusted to make wise decisions instead of emotional ones.

When you come face to face with stress, what happens to you?  Do you respond or react?  What is your body language?  Do you move around nervously, talk too much, get visibly angry or break down emotionally?  Learn in tense moments to remain calm.  Practice by putting yourself in stressful or uncomfortable situations and force yourself to remain outwardly at peace.  This will help you earn trust in others eyes. 

5. Guard your heart.

There are days when the waves are amazing.  Those days seem to have the strongest currents too.  Last summer I found myself riding massive waves in the morning only to be on a paddle board that afternoon and quickly get pulled far away from shore!  During one trip when the surf was strong we had to rescue some from our group from being pulled into a pier.  The good always seems to come with some potentially dangerous.  

Success has a similar pull.  Success has a dark side.  When momentum is present we run the risk of settling into a way of doing things assuming we will always have similar results.  Leaders who become isolated by success often find themselves lonely and more at risk for failure.  Be mindful of the negative pull of success.

Pursue significance instead of success.  Making a difference is a noble cause that can guard you from this negative side.  Another suggestion is to surround yourself with two or three people who help keep you from danger.  Empower people to ask you tough questions to keep you in check.  

I love surfing and appreciate what it has taught me about leading people.  In years to come, I hope I become a bit more proficient on a board and I trust we will all grow as leaders.  Keep making the difference that you are.  Venture out into new waters.  Continue leading bravely!