What leaders can learn about mastering V.U.C.A from surfing

Waves are one of the most dynamic and constantly changing contexts you will ever find. They remain relatively static for large lengths of time as they cross the vast stretches of ocean, before finally building their momentum and exploding onto the shores.

Occasionally we are placed in the right place at the right time to harness and use their energy in creative and beneficial ways, not unlike surfing. At other times we can be quite unprepared for their aggressive arrival, as they rear up out of the depths and break upon us, while causing a great deal of stress and discomfort.

In many ways the ocean is like the global business market and waves are the economic trends that come and go. In the same way global warming has influenced our environment to become more volatile and uncertain; technology has increased rapid rate in which our business are impacted by change. Meaning that trends like waves arrive more suddenly, they are harder to predict, and their outcomes less certain than ever before.

In this sense surfing and riding waves offers a powerful metaphor for leadership in business today, while also offering some clear concepts on leading people and businesses through the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous global work place. Good leadership today needs to be about making the complex simple by Capitalising on Complexity and effective strategic navigation. 

It is my opinion that surfing and learning to read the ocean, along with its many faces and facets, lends itself to the development of four core skills that are crucial to excelling in today’s business context:

  1. Strategic Thinking - looking at the bigger context and future trends;

  2. Agility - the capacity to quickly adjust your thinking and behaviour in a dynamic and effective way;

  3. Accountability - be responsible for your thoughts and actions and its effect on those around you; and

  4. Clear Communication - defining lucidly your intentions and expectations.

Below are 3 key insights that every leader can not only learn, but apply in an everyday context to make them a better leader, manager, employee and most of all human being, by mastering the rhythms of the ocean:

1 - The forces of nature and the market are much bigger than you are, so learn as much as you can about how they move.

Waves are shaped by converging forces from the other side of the globe, which are then sculpted by the forces of nature. Those forces continuously combine in different and interesting combinations. So every time you intend to surf those rolling blue masses of energy, you need to heed the conditions carefully and build an understanding of the forces that created them. 

The market is exactly like this too. You have to build an intricate knowledge how minor nuances (like wind and tide) impact the prevailing conditions or markets. You need to learn to pick the right time and the right place to launch or execute your strategy, product or service, not unlike knowing the right place and time to paddle out through the break. If you are unable to predict these necessary conditions, you leave yourself vulnerable to being swamped by the competition or the market. 

I have watched many a novice surfer pounded onto the rocks by simply jumping into the wrong spot at the wrong time, me included. I have also witnessed many company executives eagerly launch a new business initiative without the understanding of the market conditions and suffer the same fate.

TIP: Know the conditions: Define some key consistent makers in the market that give you an indication of what’s going on in the landscape and watch them every week. Sounds simple, but actually very few people do it. All good surfers’ line up the waves with markers on the shore to keep aligned and maintain the correct position in the lineup. Business is not the exception; know where you are in the market and when it’s the right time to execute your next move.

2 - Don’t ever turn your back on the ocean or the market

Many people, leaders, mangers and businesses are looking at the past to try and help them decide what to do next in the future. In fact it’s engrained in the practice of management. Which is interesting, because sitting in the ocean looking at where the waves have just broken with your back turned, is a guaranteed way to get cleaned up.

You will not see the next wave coming until it breaks on the back of your head. It sounds simple and it’s incredible to think that anyone would be this foolish; however, the past can be hypnotising and alluring thinking because it provides a sense of security and control. As you watch and contemplate what you might have achieved on that wave, you fail to notice the next one coming until it’s literally breaking on your head.

The business environment is similar, that is until you learn to reposition yourself quickly and turn around and focus on what’s coming, you’re more likely not to notice the biggest wave (or business trend) which has broken 100 metres further out. I can almost guarantee your closest competitor is already maximising its potential, while you are left surrounded by all the oncoming turbulence. 

Trends can come literally out of nowhere, so you need to remain vigilant and proactive, by always knowing how to read the conditions. The best surfers (leaders and businesses) are always on the best waves. To the untrained eye it can look like luck or coincidence, but I can un-categorically share with you, it has zero to do with it. 

It’s simply years of honing your craft and paying attention to the subtler aspects of what’s really going on, allowing you to be in the right position at the right time.

TIP: Look forwards, not backwards: Always focus on the time and conditions on the horizon though some form of strategic foresight process and scenario planning. It doesn't have to be complex and super sophisticated but you need something. It’s imperative in any business to always be thinking about the future, and there is no time like the present (pardon the pun). 

It’s not that difficult to get a basic outline of emerging global trends. Simply start by taking out your computer and taking the time to see what’s happening out here in the world, to increase your perspective. Far too often the reach of a leaders or CEO’s vision is too short. In my single day Strategic Thinking Program, I look at four basic domains People, Place, Technology and Economy, to start managers and leaders to thinking and focusing on what’s coming next. 

Nearly every business interaction I have as a coach or mentor, leaders are too focused on looking in the rearview mirror and not on what’s coming ahead. It can literally be as simple as having a Flipboard account, that is set to monitor articles about the four spaces above, or a full strategic foresight and scenario planning process.

3 - Be open to change and at a moment’s notice.

The third aspect is figuring out when the wave has run its course. At some point, usually the nearer to the beach you get, a wave will run out of energy and potential, for both performance and joy. At that point, you need to make a decision for two reasons:

  1. As it runs out of energy, its capacity to perform minimises, as does the return for the effort that you put back into it. Occasionally a wave will gather enough momentum and reform and redeliver more potential as it nears the beach. With the right skill set you should be able to identify them and have the confidence to move on.

  2. You have to paddle back out through the breaking waves to catch another one at some point; ensure you assess the costs: energy and effort. It’s essential you need to know when to cut your losses.

Far too many businesses and leaders stick to a proposed strategy for far too long. When I am on a wave, it’s necessary for me to constantly and dynamically steer my approach to what I am going to do next, at least a couple of times a second. The mind boggles to imagine how much rapid data and feedback is being processed in the one minute it takes to ride a wave from start to finish. Again, as a business, the longer you stay on a wave or strategy that is no longer providing you the energy and access to the market to perform, get off and search for another one that offers the potential you need. If you don’t, the more effort it will take to get back to a position where you can find one that does.

TIP: Feedback: When you’re on a wave, you can feel the energy of wave below your feet, you can feel the surfboard transcribing and taming the raw energy of the ocean. It’s an amazing feeling. However, learning to understand what this feeling means and to turn it into useful decision making; that’s the magic. In business, you need feedback about what is and what is not working in your business in order to adapt and make effective decisions about what to do next. 

Building an effective and consistent set of feedback metrics based on as much real time data as you can is the only way to do this. So getting clear on what your three to four most prominent performance indicators are, is a huge step forward to helping you predict what to do next. 

On a wave, I am always thinking about a wave’s capacity to generate speed, create shape to perform maneuvers and length of ride in every moment. These three primary criteria help me make important decisions about whether to stay on the wave or get off and search for another that will offer me what I want and provide the outcomes I need.