Leadership Lessons from the Rip Tides


My friend Carl recently launched his sea kayak into the surf on the wild Outer Banks beaches of North Carolina.  After cresting the first line of waves he paddled out to meet the second barrage of waves.  Suddenly the he and the kayak were vertical, looking skyward, then dumped into the tumbling waves.  Surfacing with paddle in hand he began swimming to shore into a strong undertow … repeatedly battered and pulled back toward the open sea … he swam hard, being rebuffed, again, again and again … some 15 minutes later, near exhaustion and in panic, he realizes something must change and lets go of his paddle, floats on the surface to regain strength to continue the relentless battle with the forces of nature.  He slowly becomes aware that the current is moving him down the beach where he encounters a different quality of gentler waves that begin inching him toward shore … magically, in ceasing to fight the current and surrendering to the forces of nature, he found friendlier waters that washed him up on the beach, exhausted but alive.

Later, as he explained his near death experience to his teen-age sons, they responded – as only teenagers can – “right Dad, you were in a ‘rip tide’ and you should have swam parallel to the beach a bit and all would have been well”  — common knowledge to those familiar with ocean swimming, but clearly not to Carl.  What was eminently knowable and known by many was unknown to him and almost contributed to his demise.

As I reflect on our work with leaders … we might ask ourselves and them:

–       What is it we’re holding onto that feels right and safe (Carl’s paddle) that may actually be our undoing?

–       What are you struggling with these days – how could you soften your grip on this and see what new perspectives and ways emerge?

–       How do we cultivate that early warning system, the deep intuition that helps us question what we know and trust, to enable us to act decisively in charting a course through the unknown before the crisis appears …

–       How do we pull ourselves out of the comfort of existing business models and practices that deliver today’s results nicely to act boldly and early to build the future that is full of unknowns and opportunities?

–       What would it take for us to manage the anxiety of messing around with what works to embrace excitement and aliveness of a thriving, generative future?

bob devlin
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