Leadership Below 100 Feet: Leadership Scuba Style

Leadership lessons come in many contexts. Last year,  I shared what I learned about inspiring “courage” from my Scuba instructor on my first panicky intro to Scuba. A few more dives logged, I continue to see more connection between leadership and Scuba. Part metaphor. Part reality. I look forward to hearing your real-life metaphors and application.

6 Leadership Lessons From Scuba Diving

1. Breathe

This one seems obvious, but as we were travelling around the island, one of the most frequently uttered phrases we overheard from surfacing divers was, “I just keep forgetting to breathe.” Each time, my son and I would grin at each other and ask “how is that possible? “

It happens in leadership too. When the going gets toughest, it’s easy to “forget” to breathe.

Leaders need oxygen, and pause. Next time you’re feeling underwater, notice your breath. Gaining control of your breathing helps the rest of the scene feel more manageable.

2. You can say a lot without words

4by4handsScuba divers are taught hand signals for the basics: “shark,” “I’m out of air,” “look now,” “Are you okay?” It’s fun to jump in with a new group of divers and fit right in with our common language. Teams need a system of common, simple communication.

But it’s also so important to know your team and watch their non-verbals.. “Something’s wrong with his equipment”. “She’s swimming like crazy away from the crowd, she’s off to take a picture of a lion fish.”

Leaders can learn a lot by just paying attention to their team’s movements, expressions and focus.

 3. There’s a lot you can’t see at the surface

It all looks so calm at the surface: the sunshine and the crystal blue water. But go a little deeper and there’s many beautiful mysteries waiting to be discovered, along with rocky edges that will rip you up if you’re not paying attention.

Great leaders go deeper and don’t rely on the apparent answers

4. Slow down or you might miss something2lions4by4

I’ll admit it, my natural instinct is to race around and “see” as much as possible. But going a little slower is way more efficient (your air lasts longer) and the best discoveries are tucked deep inside the coral.

Leaders who slow down enough to really take in the situation, will spot more.

5. Stay close to your team

When scuba diving, it’s tempting to work you own agenda, but the consequences may be severe. We learned that clearly established roles and agreed upon strategy at the beginning was vital. When in doubt, stay together.

Strong leaders know that a highly-coordinated team is the best defense against tricky situations.

6. Panicking makes the problem worse

It’s easy to panic fast when you’re 100 feet underwater, and can’t see your partner. A frantic response leads to crazy solutions that will immediately aggrevate the situation.

The same thing happens in leadership. The immediate reaction is seldom the best response. Leaders stay calm amidst the urgency to make more informed decisions.

Begin With An Open Mind

It’s hard to argue with Stephen Covey’s 2nd habit “begin with the end in mind.” Wise wisdom. But. Heads down, full steam ahead comes with risks.

Chartered courses without open minds lead to missed opportunity.

Sir Captain Don’s Story

Last week I met Sir Captain Don Stewart on our vacation to Bonaire, in the Dutch Caribbean.

Captain Don.

  • Was named one of the world’s greatest explorers by Life Magazine
  • Was recognized with National Geographic Society’s highest award
  • Was knighted
  • Led conservation movements and policy creation, including the elimination of spear fishing in Bonaire
  • Led the transformation of the Bonaire economy by creating a viable tourism industry
  • Made 25 expeditions to the Antarctic, and was recognized when a National geographic feature “the Walsh spur” was named after his contributions
  • Was appointed by Presidents Carter and Reagan to the U.S. National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere
  • Was aboard the bathyscaphe Trieste when it made a record maximum descent into the Mariana Trench on January 23, 1960, the deepest point of the world’s oceans

BUT before all that Don.

  • Didn’t make it as a hollywood actor
  • Had his screenplay rejected
  • Survived cancer
  • Was broke
  • Patented a method that made it possible to fit screens into sliding glass doors
  • Developed a highly successful screening company
  • Floated the Mississippi on a raft
  • Taught himself to sail
  • Was a spear fisher
  • Collected exotic fish and sold them for aquariums
  • Sunk his sailboat

Captain Don began with an open mind. One thing led to another. His passion emerged. He shared that he was encouraged by a hollywood friend to, “live his script.”

Begin with an Open Mind

open mindDon’t get stopped by…

  • Good but not great
  • False starts
  • Success
  • Failures
  • Setbacks
7 Ways to Inspire Courage

7 Ways To Inspire Courage

You know they can do it. They’re scared. Their lack of courage is a downward spiral. Fear stops trying. Lack of trying creates doubt. Doubt affirms negative self-perceptions. It breaks my heart to watch highly qualified, talented people let scared stop them.

And yet, it’s hard for those born with a few extra confidence genes to build courage in others. Skills that come naturally are hardest to teach.

Courage Drowns at 60 Feet

Apparently, I needed a dose of scared.

During the last day of Scuba certification, 60 feet under the crystal blue oceans of Bonaire, I stopped breathing. Oh, air was flowing. But the pristine water suddenly turned dark, and crushed my lungs. Panicked, I signaled to Sven, our Scuba instructor. “UP!” He looked confused. Now I signaled more aggressively, “I NEED TO GO UP, NOW.”

He checked my equipment, looked at me curiously and gently signed “No.” Now more frantic, I started to kick powerfully and swim up. He grabbed my BCD, deflated his, and held me down. Surfacing too soon would create medical problems. He calmly signaled that we would go up, together, and slowly. My family watched curiously. Why was mom, a former lifeguard, competitive swimmer and triathlete freaking out?

7 Ways to Build Courage

Sven knew how he reacted to my panic mattered. He also knew that he couldn’t certify someone who could potentially lose it diving in a remote area of the Island. How he reacted below and above the surface made all the difference.

 Sven’s Approach to Courage


  1. Stay calm
    Confidence inspires courage. Sven didn’t react to my reaction. He never looked worried.
  2. Establish partnership
    “I’ve got you.” “We’re going to do this together.” “I’m not going to let you drown.”
  3. Ask questions
    When we got safely to shore he asked lots of questions to understand the scene. “When had I started to feel uncomfortable?” What did it feel like? Were there signs of Nitrogen Narcosis?. Surely such an absurd reaction had an explanation.
  4. Reinforce competence
    Sven reassured in his Dutch accent that I was fully competent. “Karin, you’ve mastered all the skills and demonstrated them well.” “ You know all the standby skills.” You know what to do in any emergency.”
  5. Naming the fear
    “The biggest risk now is that you become afraid of your reaction to your fear. You weren’t afraid of going deep before, so there’s no reason you should again, unless you tell yourself you’re going to be afraid.
  6. Straight talk
    “I know you can do this, and want to certify you. If you panic again, I can’t.” There are consequences to low self-confidence. We can’t risk putting people in certain positions, for their safety and others.
  7. Encouragement
    “You’ve got this. Let’s try again.”

We did. The next dive led to certification. Certification led to a wonderful week of diving all over the Island, including remote areas. No fear, just fun.