We need leaders today that know how to create engagement and unleash innovation in every person from the front desk to the C-Suite through autonomy, accountability … and a little bit of surfing. I am passionate about surfing and creating a culture of engagement within organizations. I use what I’ve learned in both to build, motivate and lead teams and individuals to release and amplify human potential. Big wave surfer and friend Easkey Britton says, “A wave is like a mirror to the soul. It reflects our fear, our willingness, our vision…” It dares us forward and exposes us to extreme truth.
She continues, “It’s that fear of failure that holds us back. In surfing, our wipeout is the first trick we learn.” Like the wave that helps us peer into our own soul, great leaders likewise see and then reflect greatness in the lives of those they lead. Great leaders dare those they lead to see a truth never before spoken. Leaders today require things like empathy, compassion, hope, and an ability to architect a new context unlike any time before. To truly engage, we must connect to our teams and individuals like the surfer to a wave.
A surfer doesn’t use commands or controls to establish connectivity, structure, or relationship to the sea. He instead watches like a student the natural churn of the surf and paddles himself into the energy of its epicenter. There he carefully sits and studies the line-up until he chooses his wave as it emerges on the horizon. He paddles to it, pivots into its rising pitch, and drops down the emerald wall where he begins the journey of the “stoke.” In that drop he begins to create and iterate on his movement as he cascades up and down the face of the wave like a sculptor shaping his art. In this dance is where he learns about himself, the sea, the challenge, the journey, and the undulations of innovation. He humbly but confidently connects to something bigger than himself and interconnects his mind to the edge while he creates over and over until learning - both failing and succeeding - becomes like breathing.
Surfers watch the waves to understand. They paddle to the wave to engage. They pivot into the wave to create. They iterate on the wave to connect. And they learn about themselves, their strengths, and the power of collaboration to advance and amplify. If leaders are to develop teams and organizations where engagement and innovation scale new heights, they must adopt a similar process as they build, motivate and lead their teams.
We are hardwired to solve, create, learn, and develop, and yet organizations worldwide focus on bettering weaknesses vs. strengths to fit corporate agendas. They leave the person behind. Perhaps that is why employee engagement is at a crisis level because organizations still drive motivation with “carrot and sticks (Gallup).
We are designed with an intrinsic, deeply hardwired DNA that far outweighs the biological driver (sex, food, drink) and environmental driver (reward, punishments) once thought paramount in building teams and engagement. Gallup says, “It’s been nearly three years since [it] announced its stunning finding that engagement in the American workplace had fallen to crisis levels. In what became the shot heard ‘round the world in business, the research firm revealed that 70% of the nation’s working population admits to being disengaged in their jobs (i.e., content with collecting a paycheck while investing little of their hearts in their work) – and that nearly 1 in every 5 workers is so discontent that they’re perversely motivated to undermine the effectiveness of their bosses and organizations” (https://talentculture.com/gallups-profound-discovery-engagement-is-driven-by-good-managers-with-rare-talents/)
Watch: Understand the lay of the land
I sat still on the shore with my toes sifting through the sand watching the sets roll in like slumbering giants. It looked big - big enough to pause - but not so big that I paused enough and left my board under the shade of the coconut trees. The water churned with energy bubbling and frothing with intent. My board sat listless in the sand but waiting to plunge into the swirl and head toward the pitch.
Before every session I perform a ritual of observation. Whether in the parking lot, leaning on a sea wall, fidgeting my toes deep into the sand, or simply leaning against my truck, I study the surf. Every wave and every session has a personality. They’re like people filled with varying traits, preferences, angles, stories, moods, influences, and peculiar nuance. The wave needs to be understood to effectively engage. Like the proverb from 2x world champion John Lawerence, “Watch for a while. Watch from the beach longer than you normally would. Look for patterns and be a skeptic with your mind. It’s usually twice as hard to do in real life what you are doing in your head.” The pause is always a good thing - in leadership and surfing.
I learned the art of the pause through surfing and my lifelong battle with stuttering. I had to watch and listen and learn before the words could even make it out of my mouth. I spent a lot of time in silence. My struggle with stuttering helped me develop a discipline of overcoming obstacles and helped develop my compassion and empathy for others. It forced me to pause. A good leader is not just there to give direction and verbal queues, but he or she is there to pause and listen so they can understand. Watch the people and teams a bit before you try and lead them. See the chemistry, the friction, the personalities, and most important see the individual and their strengths. Watch what the wave does every time and realize you are a part of something much bigger than yourself.
Paddle: Be nimble and adaptive in approach
Every time I paddle out, it’s both a tactical and strategic positioning in constantly shifting conditions. Sometimes the paddle is long and arduous like a climb to Everest, and others it’s a pithy and quick jaunt like a gazelle leaping across the plains. Typically as I paddle out, I’ve already picked the spot where I want to sit in the lineup yet being fully aware of the environment that is likely to shift and move. Therefore my plan has to remain lucid. I know I will have to adapt constantly. I am constantly eyeing my destination within the context of shift. For example, in the paddle I assess the energy of the water from the waves, the currents undulating beneath me, the angle of the waves as they pitch, the tides evolving pattern, and the crowd of people already in the water. I do all of this as I eye the horizon to find my wave; it’s a constant assessment of emergent influences … and that occasional dolphin or seal.
Like a great leader building a team, I constantly evaluate my strategy, tactics, and position realizing that to be nimble, adaptable, and aware is the only way to see forward and catch a great ride or build a great team.
Pivot: Provide an untraditional environment of both autonomy and accountability
The pivot is key. It positions us for what surfers call the “stoke.” The surfer literally finds this stoke within the turbulence as exploding waves break apart the molecules of water and air to release charged ions. Science says surfers literally feel “stoked” in this altered atmospheric state.
We surfers are deeply connected to the randomness of the ocean responding to unsuspecting movements of the sea. We find its hidden momentum and surf. We find the peak of the wave as it emerges and ride its evolving shape. We are at home in the randomness and thrive on the edge. Only on that edge of the wave can we create. Only on the edge of the wave can we live.
Every wave I paddle and pivot into aligns to what Easy Britton says, “When you get in the water and catch a wave, you own your life again. Surfing gives you great inner strength.” There is both a freedom and consequence in decision and vision that surfing gives to those that engage. In the pivot, permission is either given or taken according to the adaptability and position of the surfer on each and every wave. You see, the wave holds the surfer accountable. It either gives freedom in the drop to begin innovating and expressing an inner vision of that ride or it will slap him into the whitewash like a passionate coach might chant to a player “try again.” Pivoting your team to lean into the experience and the vision means you have to both provide an arena where trust and empathy is paramount while accountability and responsibility to mission is center. And it can’t be done in a traditional bureaucratic environment. Corporations need to have a startup environment for these risks and ideas to succeed and thrive. You have to dedicate your commitment to people that wake up every day with a passion to do things in a way that’s different if you want to build a culture that pushes your team to paddle back to the pivot over and over again.
The pivot on the wave is not just about position but about experimenting and learning in order to find the edge and feel the “stoke.” A key part of the job as a leader is to “bring everyone with you and get everyone to the same place you are.” Chris Dargis
Iterate: Foster creative expression and explore the unknown
On the wave, cascading down the drop of the pitch we find our place in the greater ecosystem. We discover in the wave that the joy of innovation and creation is innate to our design, our very being. It is there on the wave we are allowed to tap into that DNA within the restraints of the wave and innovate and create to the degree and the extent that we are willing to push and press our own boundaries. That’s why we love to surf. We can carve or cruise, sink into the unfolding, emerging pitch, or pick our line and nimbly follow its lure.
Surfing is freedom while at the same time it is respect of a system greater than any one person. The context of the sea and the environment of the surfing culture is about inspiring honest rebellion against the linear approach society and industry has put on people so that we can engage in the power of creating. As leaders, we must turn away from the legacy of organizational history that has reduced our interactions to cold, scaleable process and precision. Instead, we must learn to create environments where unpredictability is expected and bottom-up, emergent phenomena is encouraged so that amazing novelty becomes the competitive advantage.
In a book called “Collective Genius,” it says that to truly build, motivate and lead individuals and teams that are innovative the leader must focus on architecting 1) collaboration, 2) discovery driven learning, and 3) integrative decision making. Understanding the context of the wave within the system of the ocean is what draws the surfer not just into a session where she paddles and pivots into an occasional wave, but rather puts her into an opportunity to create new learnings and explore the untouched. It is the place where she comes alive.
Steven Johnson says innovation is primarily about evolution, not revolution. It’s about ‘slow hunches’ not sudden bright flashes … and more about collaboration around the adjacent possible. “If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where ideas can connect.”
Learn: Learn to fail is an integral part of progress
The ultimate challenge of learning is a willingness to embrace and accept failure as the pivotal stepping stone of success. I learned that as I overcame my stutter.
I stated above the wily insight from big wave surfer Easkey Britton who surfs waves upwards of 50-60 feet on the coast of Ireland. “It’s that fear of failure that holds us back. In surfing, our wipeout is the first trick we learn.” The beauty of surfing is the balanced combination of autonomy and accountability. In other words, when I surf I am free to surf any wave I want and to create on the wave any way I choose within the boundaries of my own limits and the emerging pitch and size of the wave. If I drop to late into the pitch I will get plunged into the “falls” and get tossed around like clothes in washing machine. If I get too deep in the barrel, I will get swallowed up by the wave and slapped into the “spit” of the cascading wave like a rag doll. However, if I find a spot that emerges and hover just at the edge of the preening emerald wall, I am free to innovate and create at whim to the effect where I connect to the system and the surrounding crew of my fellow surfers cheering me on. In surfing, the edge is not just a place but a state of being.
Leaders hate to fail because of how they will be perceived and employees are afraid to fail because they will be punished. Both of these have to stop. This is where innovation within accountability marry and produce purpose and innovative power. Failing fast in order to learn is paramount for innovation to thrive.
In organizations and teams it creates the competitive advantage in a world where the pace of change will never be as slow as it is today. Like Ed Catmull of Pixar says, it’s the “forces of art and commerce.” He continues, “… good leadership is anyone who wants to foster creativity and problem solving - a palpable energy, a feeling of collaboration and unfettered creativity… a sense of possibility.”
Empower people: Empower people at all levels to discover what needs to be solved and how they propose to fix it
Great leaders realize that to build and foster an environment where creativity and problem solving are pillars of culture, they must help the team stay on the path to excellence by freeing them up to speak up and solve problems without fear of recourse. The leaders needs to be removing fear and empowering every worker at every level to find and fix problems. For example W. Edwards Deming’s philosophy that would later be applied to big brands like Toyota believed that “If anyone at any level spotted a problem in the manufacturing process, Deming believed, they should be encouraged (and expected) to [literally] stop the assembly line. Japanese companies that implemented Deming’s ideas made it easy for workers to do so: They installed a chord that anyone could pull in order to bring production to a halt.” (Creativity, Inc) Employees were encouraged and literally empowered to speak up and install the change they saw that needed to happen. This is one of the biggest draws of surfing. Namely, the power of innovation, expression, and creation is in our hands. We are given the power to alter our own destiny in that single moment. Giving power back to the employee places the baton of change squarely in his or her hands. When that baton hits, there is an instant and palpable sense of pride because they get to fix what was broken. Their voice becomes heard.
Fail Fast: Failure is important and needs to be fostered in a safe environment where fear of recourse is removed
A tenant of Agile (an innovative software development approach) states, “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.” Gartner said in 2016, “The biggest threat to innovation is internal politics and an organizational culture, which does not accept failure and/or does not accept ideas from outside, and/or cannot change.”
Like the surfer, the leader must learn about the wipeout and embrace the lesson that is taught so he or she can go, educate, and teach what he has learned. Likewise, teams need to be freed up to understand that testing, iterating, failing, learning, and testing again and again are central to progress and to our very design as humans. If a surfer doesn’t learn the wipeout and what it means to recover, he won’t learn to surf. When you “bail” on the wave whether it’s on the drop, the bottom turn, the barrel, the carve, the pitch, or the line you learn how to better your position, your balance, and how and where to “create” on the pitch. You learn about the wave and you learn about yourself. For example, let’s say in every one of my surf sessions I wait for that one perfect ride and only take the one that appears to be perfect - like the old approach to software development called Waterfall - there is a very high probability that something will go wrong. Either the wave won’t be what I thought, I could pivot into a bad position, or I might pick a bad “line.” If you only produce one iteration of a product or service, maturation, refinement, and excellence will never get a chance to evolve. The odds are stacked high against success. However, if I take wave after wave no matter its proximity to perfection, I can iterate and refine, and learn again and again. A perfect ride instead becomes emergent, an evolution of adjacent possibilities. Only in the iteration do I become smarter. Only after surfing wave after wave do I evolve my journey. Only after failing again and again do I learn to better position my stance, my pivot, or my turn. For the surfer, there is no end state. It is literally a journey to find the next best wave and connect to a deeper part of self where you are pushed to the outer-known. This may sound a little Zen but “When you get in the water and catch a wave, you own your life again. Surfing gives you great inner strength” (Easkey Britton)
Connect Communities: Connect to people and people to people to create an environment where innovation can flourish
Steven Johnson says innovation is evolution and not necessarily revolution. He continues, “If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.” As a leader, you need to sit down with your team and listen. Connect with them. This is where mutual understanding begins and trust is born. You learn about who they are, what they do, how they work, where they are frustrated, and what is their “why.” Then connect them to each other and create an environment of collaboration that fearlessly explores the possibility of the adjacent. If done well, the team begins to inspire one another. For example, while in the water we surfers are a quilted community with a common purpose but differing qualities that accentuate variety and perspective. And yet we are all connected by the power of the “stoke.” Solo motivation and inspiration is overrated while a deeply connected community inspires discovery and unearths innovation. A community committed together and freed to create within the focus of mission and purpose will sharpen and develop each other to new heights that alone is not possible. They become the driver of the what-could-be.
Create Meaning: Lead with a vision that draws attention to something greater than ourselves
Zen says, “Swallow the Pacific Ocean in one gulp… and that’s the easiest thing in the world. Where inside and outside are no longer two. There is a need for this real connection.” Easkey Britton continues, “Surfing is the power of being in nature. Our total presence. We become a little humble. It’s as if the salt water dissolves the restraints of this world and makes us a part of something greater.”
There are two types of leaders: 1) Those that make us believe we are more than mere cogs in a lifeless machine droning on and on and 2) those that ring the bell of the corporate office by driving people like horses in a buggy race to an arduous finish line. We can no longer tolerate the second. People want to belong to something “otherly.” They want to feel a part of a community, a mission, a purpose higher than themselves. Like I stated above, our true internal driver is one that yearns to solve, to create, to connect, to belong, to learn. But so many leaders today focus on a microcosm linked only to function and title, a hierarchy of rank and file and function. They treat their people like rungs on a ladder where feet continue to trod and pound on the climb to the top. Today’s organization demand much more. Actually, the people in this new workforce demand more and will tolerate nothing less. They won’t stand for purposelessness, power hungry tyrants pounding the drums of success or weak minded, directionless puppets that flutter in the wind. Today’s leader must infuse purpose into the organizational mission and future vision of the company and drive forward with passion and empathy. They must learn to coach, train, inspire, and develop both the team and the organization through discipline of mission and vision where humans are the epicenter. It’s what Simon Sinek calls the “why” of what we do. We must lead by defining the “why” we are here and the “why” we do what we do. It has to be like a charged neon light forever blinking mission and vision guiding us forward. It has to be like that epic wave we surfers constantly search and yearn to ride. Maya Angelou says, ““A leader sees greatness in other people. You can’t be a great leader if all you see is yourself.”
Be Results Oriented: Drive toward results with an acute focus on people
Lead with the mind in order to drive the metrics to grow the business, but also lead with the heart of the people and remember they are the ones that actually grow the business. Leaders use metrics and numbers as key indicators of company performance. This is still obviously necessary and a very basic function of business management. What has not been done well at all is the management of the people used to produce those metrics. The legacy of people management is that they are mere cogs in a wheel spinning round and round serving only a function of the business. For example, their voice is absent in decision making, their value to the organization is sub-optimized, they are not mentored or developed personally or professionally, and an emphasis is placed on bettering their weakness instead of nurturing their strengths. Because of this constant negative reinforcement, they have become deeply disengaged. Like Gallup said, they leave their heat and mind at home satisfied to only collect a paycheck. You need to inspire them to come to work with both heart and mind in hand.
Today’s new workforce requires a very different approach to engagement. Leaders must personally be the engine driving engagement instead of leaving it to an abstract organizational culture. As stated above, 70% of the workforce is disengaged before they even get to the office to do the job they were hired to do. Although organizations might attempt to architect a culture of engagement, Gallup says “…it became more obvious that whatever was happening with a team was directly related to its manager and to the tone they were setting … Managers, not organizations, drive engagement.” In order to raise the outcome of the teams loyalty and drive high levels of performance, the leader has to demonstrate a clear and consistent commitment to those he leads. By investing in their performance, their growth, their training, and helping to make them better people, leaders can inspire new levels of self-confidence that will help both the person and the business scale new heights.
Selflessly Develop Others: Help people to see things in themselves they alone could not see
I remember that 16-18 foot wave I rode in Maui. It was the same day I rolled my toes in the sand watching the waves roll in like slumbering giants. That anticipation and unknown scared me to death, but not paddling out scared me more.
When I finally took my listless board from beneath the palm tree and plunged into the churning sea, I paddled out into the lineup pressing into currents and paddling over wave after wave. My heart rate fluttered and raced with each and every paddle up and over what felt like moving mountains. For the pros it was not a very big day, but for me it was huge. As I aimed my board toward the horizon and outside and the impact zone, I picked my spot just off the break and perched up on my board eyeing the outside. I waited until I saw “my” set rolling in on the outside like towering sky scrappers in a small city. I picked my wave, pivoted, and paddled into the pitch. Every moment of the pivot and paddle into the drop was mind altering. I kept fighting doubt and fear as I neared the pivot and transitioned into the drop. But as I preened down the face of the wave burying my tail into the emerging fold, I instantly found an inner strength, an inner calm where things became clear. My vision became unfettered and my purpose emerged into a deep, calming state. I took the wave, carved the face of the wave like it was my craft, and eased into a new vision of myself. I saw something in me that I couldn’t have seen merely sitting on the shore. Choosing to take the drop and leaning into the pitching, emerald wall of liquid made me better, gave me strength, helped me evolve.
When I was a middle school and high school teacher, my favorite part of the job was when I was able to connect to a student and help them see something in themselves they never saw. Let’s be clear. I didn’t create something that wasn’t there, but I did help manifest something that was deeply dormant held captive by doubt, insecurity, fear, and despair. By pressing my students into a new space like that wave did for me, I helped them see a strength, an intelligence, a purpose that they had not yet seen or even dared to believe. I helped them begin to discover purpose, design, potential, and their inner self because I believed in them and pressed them to be more than they thought possible. As I have lead teams and organizations, I find the process of helping people “see” the same as I did in the classroom. If we are to have our teams be the very backbone of our organizations and the very engine of growth and impact, we need to not just drive KPI’s and year over year growth. We need to help people see greater things in themselves they alone could never see.
Like a surfer paddling out into the surf, there will be challenges. In this case of change management, while implementing what I call a “learning or living system,” it will create a system that is atypical to historic leadership. In other words, it’s not a linear approach where patterns can be recognized and interrelationships understood. It will feel a bit messy and the reigns of control will have to be held loosely.
In this model, you can expect four things: 1) Equilibrium is a precursor to death. When leaders architect this “learning and living system” (like the ocean for the surfer), a state of equilibrium will cause the system to stall like a surfer without waves. Equilibrium puts the team and organization at terminal risk. This will mean more work for the leader because he or she needs to foster an uncomfortable, perpetual state of “churning” and flux to encourage things to interconnect and intersect. 2) A threat or a compelling opportunity will draw the team to the edge of chaos. It will galvanize the system. It will evoke higher levels of mutation, change and experimentation and new solutions are likely. 3) When the system becomes galvanized from the excitement, it will self-organize and new opportunities will emerge. It will feel a bit out of control like a surfer paddling for the big wave on an outside. The team will rally and produce unorthodox solutions that will stretch the traditional model. 4) Finally, a living, learning system cannot and will not be directed along a linear path. Unforeseen consequences are inevitable. The delicate challenge is to disrupt them just enough and in a way that moves toward the desired end.
For example, when I surf, there are physiological phases on a wave. There are bouts of “bursts” next to the calm evolving, fluid adaptation, and there is a seamless blend from an explosive state of change into one lucid state of emergence. As leaders, we must learn to be nimble enough to implement this combination of speed and agility and fluid adaptability into the people and teams we lead.
Watch! Proceed with a slowness. Pick something to solve - a real problem facing the team or the organization. Open it up to the team. Ask them to solve for it. Allow unconventional approaches and mitigate the fear of non-traditional emergence. Let the system open up in a microcosm and test it. Like Toyota, allow the team to notice things that aren’t right, allow them to speak to it and notify the system, and then solve for the problem.
Leaders typically want to go in and invoke immediate change and demonstrate movement. I get that, but be aware that it usually just generates noise with no lasting, meaningful impact. I suggest that 1) you break down the fear of consequence and instill trust, 2) create interconnections within the team that reverberate like the spider's web at all interactions, and finally 3) build autonomous teams that innovate and create based on the needs of the business and then find ways to hold them accountable to those innovations. We need to break down the assembly line mentality and the fear of failure so that you can lift the shadow of the heavy hand of corporate consequence. Open up the system by learning how to surf.