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What waterskiing taught me about leadership.

"I don't want to do it anymore," he says. I look into his face and know, immediately, that this isn't true. His words are saying one thing, but his eyes are saying something else.

He wants to do it...he just doesn't want to risk it. To risk falling, that is.

There's a rite of passage that happens at our family cottage - a property my grandparents bought in the 50s for $100, that is now blessing it's fourth generation. The rite of passage is this:

Thou Shalt Water Ski.

My kids are each very different. One immediately believed she could do it, and immediately wanted to prove she was right. The other immediately questioned “what if I can’t do it?” He really wanted to be able...he just didn't want to actually try. She...jumped in. She tried. She fell. She tried again another day. She made it 100 metres. She fell. She tried again another get the idea.

Within a few days she was doing laps around the island in front of our cottage to a chorus of cheers befitting an Olympian.

I told you. It’s a rite of passage.

My son was still wondering if he would fall. He couldn't stop wondering if he would ever actually be able to do it. Even though deep inside he longed for success, he just didn't quite believe in success. He did eventually try. He fell. He tried again. He fell again. One more time, he tried, and he fell. He cried and gave up for the summer.

While my daughter kept getting better, my son unplugged. He claimed he didn't want to, but we all knew better. We could see in his eyes that he wanted to. He just didn't know how to get back in the water.

So I strapped on the skis.


Although my son liked the idea of doing this on his own, my son loved the idea of doing it together.

Now. Skiing doubles with an 8 year old as a fully grown adult, is no graceful task. This was a long way from a beauty pageant. I didn’t care. We each grab a rope, his nerves practically creating waves around him. He takes a deep breath and yells “hit it.”

He falls. I fall too. We look at each other, get untangled, and tried again. This time,...success! Just long enough for me to look at him, smile and eek out a thumbs up. Then down again. And up again. Over the sound of the rushing water, I shout my way-to-go's, you-look-great's, and this-is-amazing's! He falls three more times before we make it around the island. By the end of our journey, he feels like a champ. He was a champ. I was sore and tired, and thrilled for him.

Aren’t children such a privilege?

So often they bring out the worst in us. And then sometimes they bring out good in us that we didn’t even know we had. Leading people is no different.

Lesson 1: When we see our positions of leadership as a privilege, we make better choices.

When we manage from a mindset of privilege, we make choices that reflect where our people are at. If we see our positions of leadership as an accomplishment, or a title or a stepping stone, we make choices that reflect where we are at – our fears and our needs. As soon as that happens, we are no longer leaders. When I got in the water beside my son, I didn’t wonder what it was taking me away from. I didn’t stop to ask myself if he should be able to do it on his own. I just got in the water. Enabling him to accomplish something he didn't quite believe he could do, even though it was something he deeply desired to do was not a sacrifice; it was a privilege.

The more we realize the privilege of leadership is ours, the more intuitive Managing becomes.

Lesson 2: Even when our people deeply desire a certain outcome, it may not be enough to get them over their obstacle.

Maybe it's a fear of falling...failing...or worse...the fear that they might ultimately give up on themselves. My daughter didn't need me to get in the water with her. She was motivated and driven simply by the desire to prove something to herself. My son though, he was motivated by the thought of doing something together. He was not so concerned about having an accomplishment under his belt, he was sparked by the idea of working alongside someone who he knew was invested in him. As Managers, we often want to take a "one-size-fits-all" approach with our teams. We want to be the one that everyone else adapts to. That's okay. It's just not very effective.

Lesson 3: Everybody needs help with something, some of the time, in some way.

Why are we so tempted to treat the people we serve as though they should already have it all figured out? We all need someone, at least some of the time, to help us navigate the waters of change, the waters of challenge, the waters of growth. I’m not suggesting you do their work for them. In fact, one of the best parts about helping my son water ski was that I couldn’t do it for him – no matter how much I wanted to. This is the very place where the privilege of leadership waits for us.

As a young Manager, I wrestled with this lesson a lot. My well-meaning bosses used language like "hand-holding" or "compensating" or "coddling" when I instinctively wanted to help. Those are awful, condescending words. I wonder

if we truly believe it’s wrong to help, or if we stay out of the water simply because we're battling our own fears - What if I fail? What if they see the real me? What if they realize I haven't got it all figured out either?

Leadership isn’t supposed to be a beauty pageant.

It’s supposed to be tangled up and messy. Get in the water anyway and enable someone else’s success. I can't promise you it'll be pretty, but I can promise you, you'll be glad you did.

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