Learning to Fall and Paddle Riding the Waves of Your Career

This blog post was originally published on March 2, 2017 in Business Day South Africa by Suhana Gordhan.

What surfing taught me about leadership

Suhana Gordhan

by Suhana Gordhan



I recently traveled from South Africa to Nicaragua. It took thirty three hours to get to the capital, Managua, and then a bumpy, delirious two-and-a-half hour, dusty road trip to a place called Playa Santana. The locals call this drive “The Nicaraguan Massage.” Joseph Conrad would have called it a journey into the “The Heart of Darkness.” It was one of the most illuminating experiences I’ve ever had.

Our global office was experimenting with a leadership program called LeaderSurf - a one-week course about leadership skills and learning to surf! If you’re wondering what riding waves has to do with being a Creative Director in advertising, it’s more than you imagined.

The growth path in advertising is a strange one. You start off as a junior copywriter or art director, whipping your words and ideas into shape. Then one day you become a Creative Director, and you’re asked to whip other teams into shape, to make ideas better, to run your brands, to build client relationships and to be a leader. There is no rule book; you just have to do it, and do it with gusto.

I realized that much of my leadership skills were developed on instinct and by watching others. But your instinct can only take you so far. LeaderSurf is a course that helped cement some of that instinct with theory and analysis. I learnt varying leadership styles, the difference between leading and managing and fundamentals about conflict resolution. I walked out with practical tools and a deeper layer of consciousness about what I do.

Companies that invest in their people are companies that are future fit. I respect my leaders for growing their people and for doing it in a way that it is true to advertising – finding a creative angle. This was a creative course about leadership and everything about it made the learning exhilarating and unforgettable.

Apart from the classroom series, the ocean provided another kind of schooling. As a first-time surfer, here are some of my learnings:

Suhana Surfing

It’s easier for two people to carry two boards.

When two people carry the boards, you each hold it at the narrow end. Often, we begin a project by tackling the thick-end of the wedge. It helps to start with the easy bits and to begin the journey as a team.

Two People Board Carry

Study the ocean before you get your feet wet.

Before you channel your Kelly Slater, you have to respect the ocean – understand the tides, current and the wind. In seeing that the ocean is bigger than yourself, you learn humility. It’s not about you. It’s about the people you’re leading.

Get used to falling.

In order to learn how to stand up on your board, you’re going to fall repeatedly. A leader who doesn’t understand what failure feels like can never truly appreciate success. Every fall is a lesson in the art of resilience and an opportunity to meet your true character.

A leader who doesn’t understand what failure feels like can never truly appreciate success.
— Suhana Gordhan

Get out the way.

Once you ride the wave, there are more waves and surfers coming. An important part of leading is letting go. Getting out of the way of your teams is knowing that you have to liberate as much as you lead.

Paddle Paddle Paddle.

In order to gain momentum and catch the wave, you have to paddle with great vigour. When leading, you have to plunge into the hard work and get the timing right. The opportunities are coming up fast, right behind you and if you’re willing to engage those biceps, the right one is all yours. When all else fails and you don’t know what to do, just keep paddling.

I’m close to turning 40 and never thought I’d learn to surf. My biggest lesson in all this: We’re all capable of updating our own ways of thinking an being. We decide our own limitations. It’s time to approach the impossible with a surfer mentality – just shred it, dude.

About The Author:

Suhana is a Creative Director at FCB Africa, where she is the creative lead on Famous Brands' Wimpy - a quick-service restaurant, and Coca-Cola South Africa.

Suhana is a Hindu, who learned very quickly that there are no sacred cows in advertising.  One of her favorite moments was during her time as a Creative Director on the Peri-Peri chicken brand, Nando's, when she pissed off Robert Mugabe - an African dictator - and won a big advertising award because of it.

Suhana is passionate about the art of copywriting and loves parenting an idea well enough so that nobody molests it along its journey from birth to maturity.  Suhana writes for Business Day and is passionate about women's issues.