Saturday, March 10, 2012

5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From the Water

Over the past two days I've worked really hard to improve my swimming stroke, tighten up my form and build up my endurance. Now that I've finished my training for this week and reflect on my experiences there are some important lessons that I learned from the water. From my perspective these lessons translate into leadership lessons that could possibly help me in other areas of my life.

Before I started these two workouts I had no idea that from these experiences these lessons would be produced. However, do we ever really know all of the lessons we'll pick up on the journey before we begin walking? In my mind, the answer is "no" and that's why the journey is so special.

Workout 1 


When waking up at 3:45am on Friday morning I really did not know if I had the energy to truly fight through another swimming practice at the end of a long week. However, with the grace of God in hand and the lyrics of a few old school Jay-Z songs in my mind I drove to the pool to meet my teammates and coach.

When I got there we swam a few laps to warm up and then my coach placed us in specific lanes to do a drill that I had never done before. We were about to complete what I later called "the circle drill". If you've ever trained with a team that plays a running focused sport (like soccer or basketball) than you may know a running version of this drill.

  • Teammate 1 (usually the fastest swimmer in that lane) leads the group by swimming down the right side of the assigned lane. 
  • Teammate 2 then counts to 5 and swims after them. 
  • Teammate 3 then counts to 5 and swims in the same lane after Teammate 2. 
  • Teammate 1 has the responsibility to lead the line by staying fast, focused and in rhythm. This will set the pace for the swimmers coming behind them. 
  • Once Teammate 1 touches the other wall they then swim back to the wall where they started by swimming down the opposite side of the same lane and Teammates 2 and 3 follow them.
I was assigned to be the 1st swimmer in my lane which forced me into a peculiar situation. Our assignment was to swim 4, 100 meter sets, 4 times or 1200 meters worth of circles. My teammates were depending on me for setting the tone for the drill. The responsibility to set the example was squarely on my shoulders. I had no room to complain about having little energy. I had no room for holding back. Instead I took off swimming to be an example that complaining is not a option and that it was going to take all three of us in our lane in order to finish the work that had been given to us.

My 1st leadership lesson is leaders lead by example. 

As leaders we must learn to set the example by our actions. Words are wonderful and they should be used genuinely and tailored to each team member specifically. However if we really want to lead and get the most out of those following us we must lead them by the example that we set. We must be willing to answer the questions that we ask them and we must be willing to get in the trenches and work alongside them whenever appropriate and necessary. Many times this means we must set the pace.  

About half way through out 1st set of 400 I had forgotten about myself and I was focused on my team. I was focused on their energy levels and I was focused on how they were feeling. I was focused on keeping up with the time that our coach gave us to finish each set. I was also focused on the details around us, like keeping up with the time that we were given to rest in between each set so we remained within the boundaries that our coach set for us. 

This brings me to the 2nd leadership lesson, leaders must remain focused. 

As leaders that is what we are called to do. We must think outside of ourselves. We must trust that if we lead to the best of our abilities and with good intentions for everyone around us that those behind us will see that leadership in action and follow us. We must understand that leadership is bigger than ourselves. Its bigger than our individual feelings and that its an inclusive process that requires the leader of the moment to protect and prepare a way for their team members. 

In between sets I found myself encouraging my teammates by giving them "high-fives" and telling them encouraging words. My team got to know each other and once we got comfortable with each other we all got into a rhythm with each other. We shared our strengths and knew how to encourage one another and before we knew it we were more than half way done with the drill. 

This is my 3rd leadership lesson, leaders support their team members

Encouragement goes a long way. In leadership we must correct situations before we see them go wrong, but we must also be just as quick to encourage and show support for our teammates too. The most important resource we have on our team is not money, not time and not our organization's mission. Our most important resource is the individual people that make up our team. 

Without our teammates we have no team. There is no "I" in team. Therefore teams are more than just about us as individual leaders. I realize there is a "me" in team, but even then leaders need their team members to always be at their individual best. Each team member must be fully invested in each situation in order to see the leader's vision come to life. 

Workout 2 

After completing 3 difficult workouts already this week I went to the pool with the mindset to fine tune and make little improvements to my stroke in order to swim more efficiently and to get better in the future and that is exactly what I got from that workout. As leaders we must realize that there are "coaches" out there to help us. Each one of us needs a leadership mentor and we must check in with them consistently in order to make sure we're on a successful path. 

This is my 4th leadership lesson, leaders must remain open to suggestions

Just because we made it to the top of our careers or we've been in our leadership position so long that we think we can do it all on our own, doesn't mean that we should isolate ourselves from learning more. There are always opportunities out there for us to get better. There is always someone out there who's sat where we sit now and who will give us feedback and tips to improve our performance. We only need to be humble enough to listen and consider their feedback. 

Our goals won't accomplish themselves on their own. As leaders we know we must work everyday, consistently towards making our vision the reality that we want to live personally and professionally. However, in this age of seemingly fast results (culture change is temporary, cultural transformation is permanent) and quick communication (constant emails and text messages from technology we can't turn off) we must learn that sometimes we have to push and sometimes we have to rest, but we can't forget to rest

This is my last leadership lesson, leaders must push 
but we can't make pushing a lifestyle. 

In order for me to get up and swim Friday morning and then go in for a full day of work I had to push, especially because it was the end of what had been a long work week. I also knew though that I had to get a decent amount of sleep that night in order to get up and swim again on Saturday morning. However, once I was through with my 2nd workout I knew that I had to schedule in sometime to rest which I did Saturday afternoon.

Rest is essential to life. If we don't rest we will wear ourselves out. If we don't rest we will wear down our immune systems. If we don't rest than our muscles will never recover. All these issues add up to inefficiency, mental fatigue (more prone to making mistakes) and ineffective use of resources which can then equate to larger losses of revenue and resources. 

We must rest. Rest must be a consistent part of our lives. 

When we don't rest we slow down our progress towards reaching success and when we slow down our ability to reach for success we open ourselves up to a greater chance of failure. No leader I know wants to fail. 

As I move forward with this journey I look forward to next week. I look forward to another week of training. I also look forward to another week of sacrifice and hard work. After swimming a total of 7,700 meters this week I have a long way still to go to reach my goal of 15,000 yards in the same amount of time. However, with workouts like these under my belt and lessons like these to carry with me, I know I'm well on my way to reaching my mark.