Wisdom//

What Surfing Taught Me About Leadership

It's given me the tools I need to lead a team in uncertain times.

Sven Hansche/ Shutterstock
Sven Hansche/ Shutterstock

I have recently taken up surfing. Having been a professional athlete before, trying a new sport can be challenging on the ego, yet humbling for the soul. Being out in the open ocean on my board really had me thinking. Amidst the complexity of COVID-19 and all the social unrest, there is still so much freedom to experience, and there are many opportunities to imagine beyond the present-day reality. 

It is now my 6th week and while I am still learning and get frustrated at times, I do spend time imagining the feeling of catching the perfect wave with the right amount of balance and feeling the powerful pull that comes with it. There is no doubt that surfing has captured my imagination. It is being pursued from passion, it keeps me uncomfortable and curious, and it feels equally valuable and important to growing my company. 

15 years ago, while I was playing basketball in one of Australia’s premier basketball leagues, I remember a sports psychologist we had for the season. As young striving professional athletes with high egos, the team were not quite convinced how techniques in psychology would enhance performance. Especially when it didn’t involve using the physical strength and endurance needed to tough out the weeks of training and games. I, on the other hand, was fascinated.  

We were trained in a visualization technique used before games. It involved moving ourselves into a meditative state and taking ourselves on a journey into the future to recreate the experience of a game. From leaving home, getting to the stadium, being in the change room, walking out onto the court and then finally visualizing how we would play and see ourselves winning. The most important part of the technique was to bring to life the vivid details of each stage, while also focusing on the feelings that came with it. We were trained to step into feelings of fear, doubt and learned to transcend them, so that by the time we got onto the court, we were grounded, confident and ready to play.  

What I learnt most from this technique was that winning games was important, but how we showed to up to play was even more important. And while visualization was a powerful way to see through to the ultimate end goal, there were absolutely no shortcuts in the hard work of getting there.  The visualization tool also helped me to see beyond winning and allowed me to understand why basketball was serving me to become a better person both on and off the court.

Just recently I was coaching a young entrepreneur, and he told me he practiced yoga every other day, so I asked him why? He said because it made him feel good, so I asked him why does it make him feel good? He said because he felt more connected to himself, so I asked him why is it important to be connected internally? Each time I asked why, and each time he answered the question, there was a deeper layer to the purpose of his practice.  

As I think about the new world of work and what is required to re-create an uncertain future, I also think about how leaders must find new ways to inspire themselves and imagine new possibilities. From my experience of working with CEOs, I have seen many of them use surfing, yoga, golf and other sports as a way to destress from their high-pressure roles, as well as catch up with friends and socialize.  While this is highly useful for reasons of health, it would seem some of them use these physical outlets as a way to push themselves even more, or to tick the proverbial ‘exercise and social’ box.  This means they miss the opportunity to go deep and learn how to use their practice to explore deeper intuition and creativity. 

For many of them, it also becomes part of a fixed routine, which can sometimes lead to a fixed mindset if not explored interdependently with other creative outlets.  I often recommend to CEOs and leaders that they pursue the creative and physical outlets they love, but to also explore new ones so they stay in a place of learning, curiosity, purpose and surrendering to the ego, much like I have done with surfing.

When we begin to practice these physical pursuits from the level of purpose, we have the potential to open ourselves creatively to new thoughts, new ideas and use the power of visualization to guide us towards a new future. The capacity for endurance and resilience while also bringing purpose to the work is a tremendous skill, and not always an easy one to develop, but a very valuable one to bring to the role of CEO and leadership especially during these uncertain times. Just like surfing, trying to stand too soon is exactly what wipes you out. It is the persistence to develop the practice that counts most, and the imagination of catching the long wave is what inspires the greater pursuit of the future.

With a new world of leadership emerging and greater stress amounting for CEOs and leaders to pivot in uncertain directions, finding deeper creativity and purpose is critical to finding new ways to inspire a new future, and it can all start on surfboard.

Ana Marinovic is an entrepreneur and CEO coach. She helps CEOs transform their companies and enrich the lives of employees.   Ana will feature an upcoming series of interviews and thought leadership with well known CEOs and influencers. If you want to subscribe to the series, please email [email protected]

You can visit Ana’s Linkedin profile here.

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