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Karin’s Leadership Articles

Leadership Below 100 Feet: Leadership Scuba Style

by | Jun 30, 2014 | By Karin Hurt, Communication, Results & Execution |

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.

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today?


  1. Steve Borek

    Less is more. However I wouldn’t recommend that to your oxygen tank! ;-p

    • Karin Hurt

      Steve, LOL!

  2. bill holston

    I love these. Slow Down, is great advice, especially when the pace is frantic. I have been speaking to the media alot recently and I realize I need to really slow down and be thoughtful in my responses.

    My favorite metaphor for leadership is from the Bible, and it’s the Shepherd. I love this quote from the Psalms about King David:72 So he shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, And guided them with his skillful hands.

    Nelson Mandela used this metaphor to say that leaders led from behind, unless there was danger, and then they led from the front.

    • Karin Hurt

      Bill, love the Shepherd metaphor. Leading from behind most of the time works so well for creating sustained results.

  3. Bill Benoist

    I love the analogy “just breath.” Sometimes I forget to do that, and I’m not even in the water 🙂

    One thing I would add as I think about learning to scuba dive is to “take a lesson”. Just like we become better scuba divers after a lesson, so too can we become better leaders with a self development plan.

    • Karin Hurt

      Bill, GREAT add. Yes, leaders are always learning.

  4. Terri Klass

    I love the scuba diving metaphor for leadership! All six lessons are perfectly applicable to leadership, especially to slow down or you might miss something. Too often we lead in a rush and miss an unturned stone.

    One of my favorite leadership metaphors is leading in the same way as exploring on an adventure: keeping an open mind and trying new things. When I traveled to the South of France last year, getting lost turned out to be the best leadership lessons of all. It empowered me to face unfamiliar situations and gain confidence in unchartered territory.

    Your trip sounded amazing and I love your pictures, Karin!

    • Karin Hurt

      Terri, Thanks so much. Oh yes.. how one deals with getting lost can teach us a great deal about leadership 😉

  5. Jim Ryan

    Love it. I can relate to all of them.

    One more. When the visibility is very bad or the current is too strong (which are all very common when you dive here in New England), don’t be afraid to bail. As a leader, knowing when stop and come to the surface to reassess and possibly quit is a skill. Quitting gets a bad rap.

    • Karin Hurt

      Jim, So perfect! Yes. Knowing when to “bail” is vital. My husband found that on this trip. If you’re just not feeling it, no need to press forward.

    • Robert parker

      That is good bro….never thought about it like that quitting is a dkill

  6. LaRae Quy

    Great post, Karin!

    I’ve had panic attacks when scuba diving and it perfectly illustrates the importance of both a “buddy” and a strong mind. “Losing it” at 100 feet down is not an option if you want to come out alive, and yet when leaders feel like they’re in over their head, they often do panic and lose control.

    Having a buddy whom you can rely upon is also essential…this is the partner who is by your side and in whom you trust to get you through tough times. Whether a leader calls their buddy a mentor or an accountability partner, they are essential.

    Love this!

  7. Subha Balagopal

    I’ve never tried scuba diving but I can picture your ideas beautifully! It’s hard to be in a leadership role and avoid finding analogies between the things we experience and the work we do, isn’t it? Thanks for another great post, Karin!

    I talk to my team about ‘dispelling the fog’ when I speak of clarifying our expectations – my expectations for my team, the teachers’ expectations for students, etc. While driving in a fog, visibility is poor and it’s hard to see more than a couple of stripes of the lane markers at a time. However, when the fog lifts, we can see what lies ahead and know what we need to do. We can react to the bumps and potholes, more calmly and thoughtfully, we can respond to what other drivers are doing on the road better, and even enjoy the scenery. I try to bring this analogy into my work. If people are not doing what I expect, I try to figure out if I’ve left them in the fog, and if I need to dispel it by bringing more clarity into the picture. For them to be active participants on the team this is critical.

    Thanks for always making my brain hum with your thought-provoking posts!

  8. James McKey

    Great post! I’ll definitely share this with my SCUBA buddies. One of my favorite true story audio books is called “Shadow Divers” and tell the story of hard core divers that found and dove a WWII German submarine off the coast of New Jersey that no one (historians, governments, military, etc) could account for with any certainty. Lots of good life and leadership lessons in it too.

  9. David Lundin

    I was a wildland firefighter to pay my way through college. Now as a Civil Engineer (and volunteer firefighter), I often think back to one of the “Ten Standard Firefighting Orders” – Stay alert, keep calm, think clearly, act decisively.

    • Karin Hurt

      David, Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and approach. Great to have you join the conversation. I hope you will come back again.


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Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict, and hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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