Some of my first experiences with leadership began as a 14-year-old, when I started teaching martial arts classes for adults. I learned the importance of leading by example. I learned what it was to be in front of adults who were relying on me for guidance and support to grow their skills.
In my 20’s, my leadership journey further expanded after founding an organization that gave me the opportunity to not only grow and exercise leadership in ways that continually stretched me, but gave me the honor of working alongside some of the greatest, most courageous people I’d ever met in my life, from fellow scholars, small business owners, to social justice leaders, to corporate CEOs.
After really thinking about this journey of leadership, and some of the characteristics of great leaders I met along the way, it was hard not to think of surfing. The similarities are uncanny, actually. Who would have ever thought surfing could be such a window into greatness J Below are 11 great leadership qualities I have seen in action.
1. Great leaders commit to their word and follow through: In the way a surfer commits to a wave at the time of takeoff (the point where the surfer catches the wave and pops up on the board), when great leaders say they are going to do something, they actually do it. They commit to their word. When something changes on their end, they communicate it out or give advance notice. Doing what they say they will do builds absolute trust and confidence in their word.
2. They have balanced energy: Balance is at the foundation of surfing and is a quality I have observed in the greatest leaders I have met. They have a calm, balanced energy about them and are able to be fully present with you in the moment, even if they are extremely busy. They possess a balanced and inviting way of doing things. Many of them have a practice (yoga, running, meditation) or something that keeps them grounded. That energy is felt when you are with them.
3. They know when to be old skool: Great leaders are skilled in the art of relationships, and more importantly, they just know when to pick up the phone, old- skool style. They don’t send long, diary-like e-mails expressing their feelings and frustrations with a laundry list of things you did wrong or how they feel wronged. When shit goes down, they pick up the phone. They are courageous. They confront things head-on and know when a face-to-face conversation is warranted. Relationships matter to great leaders, and they know how to manage them.
4. They choose creation over victimhood: Great leaders have a creation vs. victim mentality. This means they focus on the ride – the art of carving through the wave - even if the wave is monstrous and gnarly. They are self-accountable and don’t blame others for their situation or their wipeouts. If something doesn’t go as planned, they regroup, try again, shift strategies and embrace a growth mentality, learning from the process.
5. They possess a passion for their craft: Much like a surfer, great leaders have a passion for their craft. They put the best intentions of the issue, cause or organization before their personal agendas.
6. They understand the greater powers at work: Like surfers who understand the power of the ocean, great leaders understand they are minute in the big scheme of things. They know when to be humble and lead from behind, and how to manage a healthy ego while being at the helm. They know how to use their ego selectively.
7. They are courageous: Like a big wave surfer tackling the world’s scariest waves, great leaders are courageous in their ability to confront uncomfortable situations and have those difficult conversations. They face their fears, and by standing in their power and speaking their mind, they are able to come to new understandings with those around them.
8. They are versatile: A surfer can be versatile in her ability to surf many different types of surfboards through many different types of conditions in the ocean. In the same way, great leaders tend to have broad experience in various aspects of their craft, and are versatile in what they do. Some of them may have started doing the most menial thing, but learned the ropes along the way and know what it feels like to be in the shoes of the people they are leading.
9. They respect others: As surfers learn to have a healthy respect for the ocean, great leaders operate from a baseline of respect for people, including their rivals. They are not the type who go around making up names for a colleague or boss, or talk badly about someone behind their back. They hold respect for others and know how to communicate their position, even if it is at odds with someone else’s.
10. They are able to see trends through multiple perspectives: A surfer goes through many perspectives – from assessing conditions on the beach, to being in the water taking the drop, to being in the ‘zone’, to duck diving under the wave. They are able to be in all perspectives. Great leaders are also able to be in a range of perspectives, understanding that not everyone will see something the way they do, but knowing how to cull the “trends” from varying perspectives around them.
11. They are curious: Just as surfers cross borders, curious about the next kind of wave they will encounter on the horizon, great leaders are curious. They never assume anything, and know how to approach issues from a place of curiosity. They know how to ask the right questions from this rich place of curiosity.
What are some of your observations of great leadership?
Executive & Leadership Coach | Global Explorer | Founder, Surf Life Executive Coaching & Brown Girl Surf