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Leadership in the Wave Pool

March 3, 2017

wave pool.JPGHave you ever been to a wave pool?

If you’ve been to the ocean, you know what waves are like, but once you have watched the ocean for a few minutes, the waves can be predictable. Admittedly, in a storm, they can surprise you, but usually you can see the storm coming – either on the water or in the sky – and plan to be on shore.

But in a wave pool, the fun happens when the waves surge fairly suddenly – but within a confined space – and you either learn to ride them or you momentarily sink under them.

There are many times as a leader, you feel more like you are in a wave pool than an ocean. Seemingly out of nowhere, waves come one after another after another and they don’t stop. For days. For weeks. Maybe even for a few months. What should you do when you are in the middle of the wave pool as a leader?

  • Acknowledge the Risk

It’s not really a sense of life-threatening danger, like it might be in an ocean undertow. Your life or your business or not in immediate jeopardy. Yet the wave seems to be crashing fairly suddenly and fairly strongly. You can’t pretend it is not coming or it will overwhelm you. Those you are leading may not have your perspective on the waves, either minimizing its’ strength or fearing its’ power. You need to clearly identify what the wave is, where it is coming from (if you know), and remind people it is a temporary challenge. If possible, remind the constituency of a previous wave you faced and how your organization came out stronger.

  • Ride the Wave

While you may be able to minimize the wave’s impact and how much it sets back your business and operations, don’t try to squelch or squash the wave in your own power, or a temporary challenge could become a dangerous obstacle. As much as possible, ride the wave… carry on with regular operations (as much as possible) and let the wave crescendo, and then eventually dissipate.

In a wave pool, unless the operator flips the switch off, you are not going to stop the waves unless you get out of the pool. Your only choice is to ride the wave and let it carry you safely around the pool. If you fight it, it will cause you trouble. The same is true in an organizational wave pool.

  • Look for Support

Our children are at ages (9, 7 & 5) where they enjoy wave pools. We love them because they can experience waves in a safe context… and living in central Canada far away from any real bodies of water, that is the main way they will experience any real waves!

However, they have also learned to look for a supportive adult (parent, other relative, lifeguard) if they feel the waves getting a little too wild for their comfort.

Likewise, a leader need to be humble and wise enough to call out for help when they find the wave pool getting overwhelming. Whether it is a mentor, another leader in a similar organization who may be facing parallel waves, or a spiritual advisor/counselor, a leader should look for support. You are not alone, even when it feels lonely.

  • Celebrate the End

When the waves finally stop, our children are ready to come out of the water and be congratulated and for the good job they did surviving and enjoying the waves. As a leader, you may be tempted to simply take a deep breath and enjoy a minimum stress week(end) for a while when the waves stop. And while this will be necessary, first you need to let your team know the waves have ceased (or been dealt with appropriately), the problem has been fixed, and then express your appreciation to them for riding through the wave with you.

Your team will value the affirmation and will also be ready to ride through the next wave pool with you when it comes again in the future.

What lessons have you learned riding through the waves of organizational leadership?

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