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Guest Article

Leadership and Skim Boarding

By Dan Reiland

This summer, while on vacation I learned how to skim board and throughout the sometimes painful process of learning I was reminded of some very important leadership principles that are often overlooked. So sit back and smile maybe even laugh a little as I tell you my skim boarding lessons on leadership.

While on vacation with my family over the 4th of July holiday at Panama City Beach, Florida, I became fascinated with skim boarding. Of course, when Dad gets into it then the whole family gets into it. So I bought the kids boards at Wal-Mart, and we began to teach ourselves.

The kids insisted that I go first. Big mistake. People my age should buy their kids skim-boards, not ride them. I watched the other (young) skimmers and thought—"nothing to it." Big mistake number two. I ran as fast as I could, tossed the board down into the surf, and jumped. The next thing I knew was that an incredible pain was shooting up from my hip and jamming into my brain saying, don't even think about doing that again. Did I listen to that? No. Big mistake number three. Five more times I ran, tossed the board, and jumped. Five more times I landed on the same hip, now purple and green. But I'm here to tell you, I stood tall, forced a smile, and was a hero, because I went first!

Like any good student of leadership (or skim-boarding) I decided I needed to learn more in order to get better; so I limped back to the safety of my umbrella-covered beach chair and began carefully watching how it was done.

To my surprise, the good skim-boarders fell too. They fell over and over again, and hard. The difference was they got up quicker and seemed to enjoy it. I watched them do their thing for a long time. They fell more times than they remained standing. But they always got back up and did it again. That was the first principle that reminded me about good leadership.

• Leaders fail and make mistakes, but get back up and try again.

There is a strange catharsis that comes when a group of veteran and successful leaders tell stories about all the mistakes they've made. When these stories are told to young, emerging leaders, a type of permission-giving freedom takes place. The leaders realize that this permission to make mistakes is not an excuse for sloppy work, but how leaders learn. In fact, it's how good leaders become great leaders. There are some things, candidly many things that you cannot learn from a textbook. You must get out of the classroom or conference center and get in the trenches to become a good leader. And the moment you step onto the front lines of leadership, you will make mistakes.
The important point to understand is that when you make a mistake or fail in some way, that it is not the end of the story. Instead, you get back up, dust off your knees, and get back in the game. All the while, asking the question, what did I learn? And how will I lead better?

Back on the beach, bruised in body and slightly embarrassed by my six "crash and burns" I decided to ask a skim boarder who knew what he was doing for a couple of tips. I walked up to this tough and tan looking 18-20 year old. My kids turned and looked away afraid of how the cool skim boarder would respond to this middle-aged, pasty-white man, with a waistline that is closer to a "one-pack" than a "six-pack."

The guy responded graciously. I told him I was new at skim boarding, and he said: "I know." I asked him what I could do to make progress and avoid killing myself. He said, "Dude, the first thing is that you need to wax your board." WAX! No body told me about WAX!!! He went on to explain that I would continue to slip and fall until I got some board wax. Wax. OK, good what else? He said, "Dude, you're trying to ride goofy foot." Goofy foot. What's that? He explained the importance of putting my first foot to hit the board on the back of the board for better control. OK, wax and first foot in the back. It worked! This gives insight to the second principle.

• Leaders learn from others to avoid making unnecessary mistakes.

Fortunately, we don't have to make all our own mistakes. I have been a student of leadership for well over twenty years. And though I've made plenty of mistakes I have also avoided untold mistakes by learning from others.
We learn from the leaders we respect. John Maxwell is my leadership mentor. He has coached me well. Yes, I am fortunate to have such a mentor, but I am also a good student. Very early on John taught me to come prepared with well thought thorough questions. It's one thing to "hang around" good leaders, it's quite another to intentionally learn from them. I don't ask generic or lazy questions. I ask specific questions that I have already invested effort and energy to try to answer on my own. In other words, learning takes preparation. There are no short cuts.
We learn from leaders we don't respect. There are leaders that I do not want to follow. In fact, there are leaders that motivate me to be the direct opposite of who they are and how they behave!
It is not possible to avoid all mistakes. It's not wise to avoid all mistakes. But by learning from others, you can avoid unnecessary mistakes.

Seaweed seemed to be an undesirable reality for the skim boarders. (For me, it just broke my fall.) They were constantly moving and adjusting to find the clearest water for the best rides. No one likes seaweed. For someone playing in the ocean it's an annoyance, but for someone skim boarding, it impedes progress. Another observation revealed that the timing of the wave was a huge deal. From personal experience I can attest to the fact that it is extremely difficult to skim-board on sand only! You've got to hit the right amount of water at the right time. The ebb and flow of the waves and the tide made a big difference. You have to pay attention to skim board well. Aha! Principle three.

• Leaders study the landscape and become masters of timing.

So it is with leadership. We've all met leaders who appear to be clueless. Far too often statements are made about a leader like: "She just doesn't seem to know what is going on," or, "He doesn't have his head in the game." The tides are changing but they don't have a clue.
A good leader is not only sensitive to the cultural and emotional landscape around him, but studies it well. In this presidential election year, one of the factors that will give Kerry or Bush an advantage is who appears to be most in touch with the realities of the American culture and its problems.
Being in touch with what is going on is good, but it isn't enough by itself. A good leader must also know when to take action. It has been said many times: "timing is everything." It may not be everything but its close! Like the skim-boarder who knows that a few seconds one way or another makes a big difference, a leader understands that the right decision at the wrong time is a problem.
Leaders must always face the tension of moving too quickly or too slowly. Beyond your own intuitive abilities, there are at least three things that help you master this skill: gathering the wisdom from others, prayer, and experience.

I was impressed with the tenacity and endurance of the young skim boarders. It was easy for me to lie in my beach chair under an umbrella and read a book. It's another thing to stand all day attempting to catch waves and get the best ride possible. Especially when falling down is part of the package. Our vacation was long enough that I actually saw some of these guys get better! They got longer rides and the expression of exhilaration on their faces became brighter and brighter. But their progress never came without a price tag. They really worked hard at their sport...principle number four.

• Leaders can achieve success but not without consistent effort and hard work.

There is no such thing as a free lunch. While this may be an old saying, it is nonetheless true. Life demands payment. No investment, no return. If you want to lose weight, you must pay the price of diet and exercise. If you want success as a leader you must put forth the effort.
This seems apparent, and perhaps simplistic. I write this to you because so many leaders do not work hard. Though I do not support workaholic behavior, I do believe that success comes from working smart and working hard.
Drift is real in every leader's life. It is natural. Only machines are capable of perfection and even they need to be periodically recalibrated. Leaders drift toward their comfort zone, toward the path of least resistance, and toward apathy. This process is imperceptibly slow but it happens. Drift is not a leaders desire, but left unattended it happens.
Leaders take hits and get tired, so the fuel tank runs low. Working hard over the long haul is difficult. Without intentional effort, zeal and commitment turn to duty and self-preservation. Working hard is hard work! The irony is that in order to work hard you must also rest and play hard. This is one of the reasons that led me to my vacation on the beach in Florida. But I'm rested now, and ready to once again work hard and smart.

It's been several weeks since my skim-boarding debut, and I'm walking better now. Hopefully I'm also walking wiser as a leader. How about you?

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter The Pastor's Coach available at www.INJOY.com.

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