Leadership Development Done Differently

On Sunday, February 5th a group of executives from various industries, companies and geographies were greeted by the LeaderSurf staff at Managua International Airport in Nicaragua to begin their week-long leadership development adventure.  After loading up the tour bus the group traveled for two hours through small villages, through the jungle, past two volcanos, across several dry river beds until they reached the Buena Onda Beach Resort.  The Buena Onda Beach Resort would be home for the next six days.

Entrance to the Buena Onda Beach Resort

Entrance to the Buena Onda Beach Resort

After  a welcome drink with the hotel and LeaderSurf staff, the participants were shown to their deluxe rooms.  The program began with an overview of the week ahead, introductions and learning goals which included the following:

  • Enhance individual leadership capability
  • Develop greater self-awareness
  • Shift one's lens on the world- new perspectives
  • Model authenticity and vulnerability
  • Learn a new physical skill- surfing
  • Servant Leadership- “Do what you love and help along the way”
  • Build a collaborative community of learners and a network of supporters
  • Have an amazing week together

Because this program kicked off on Super Bowl Sunday, the first evening was spent enjoying the game while feasting on local BBQ on an outside veranda.  This was the perfect way for the group to get acquainted with one and other.


Group breakfast started at 7:30am in the breezy tiki hut restaurant where the participants enjoyed fresh fruits, eggs and pastries.  The daily group breakfast offered an opportunity to set the tone for the day and to share one's appreciation for the surroundings versus the usual hustle and bustle of the daily commute.

Helium Hoop Icebreaker

Helium Hoop Icebreaker

After breakfast the group headed to the classroom for the first leadership session.  The session began with an icebreaker activity, "Helium Hoop" in which the group had to work together to achieve a task.  This challenged the newly formed group to work together and to determine who would lead the activity.  After much trial and error the group achieved the task and engaged in a debrief session to capture the learnings and how to apply the learnings to the world of work.  A daily icebreaker sets the stage for the learnings ahead and opens a group to new possibilities and the power of experiential learning.  The next ninety minutes was spent exploring the difference between leadership and management.  Through a facilitated process the executives discussed the best leaders they have encountered, the worst bosses they have had and the traits and behaviors that separate great leaders from the rest.  Because of the diversity of roles and industries that the participants represented, they found great value in hearing from one and other.

At ten thirty the learning module ended and the group prepared for their first surfing lesson.  Surfing 101 was taught by Erol and Bella, to ISA (International Surfing Association) certified surf instructors.  The lesson focused on the science of waves and surfing, safety and the basic principles of learning to surf.  An important exercise during lesson one involved having the executives spend ten minutes on the beach watching the ocean and observing their surroundings.  Erol and Bella then asked participants to share their observations.  Much like in business where you must survey the landscape or the competitive marketplace before launching a product or business, in surfing it is important to understand your surroundings before entering the ocean.  This was an important lesson for the participants.  Erol also explained that "Surfing is not about luck.  Surfing is about skill and putting yourself in the right position to be successful which takes hard work."  The second hour of the lesson was spent in the ocean working on paddling and board control.  With encouragement and coaching each participant stood up and rode a wave on day one.

Erol teaching surfing 101

Erol teaching surfing 101

Business Challenge Session

Business Challenge Session

After the surfing lesson and lunch the group engaged in the first two individual business challenge sessions.  As pre-work each participant was provided with a template to frame a business challenge that they face at work with the hope that through sharing their challenge with the group that they would get valuable input and advice.  These sessions were held outside under the tiki hut with the business challenges pre-printed in the learning journals.  These sessions proved to be one of the most valuable components of the LeaderSurf program.  According to one CEO attendee, "The prework of identifying a specific business challenge, putting it down on paper and then sharing it with the other program participants was very powerful.  Hearing the perspectives of others was very helpful.  Getting questioned and asked it you have tried this or tried that was invaluable."

After the business challenge sessions participants were given two hours of free time to relax or to catch up on work.  During free time the LeaderSurf executive coach spent one on one time with participants daily providing coaching input and relating the program work to individual development goals that were set prior to attending the program.

At 5:30pm the participants assembled on the beach for a sunset reflections session.  The sunset reflections session provided an opportunity for the participants to reflect on the day and to articulate specific learnings.  Each person was required to share one thing that they learned that day about themselves or the world that they did not know when they woke up that morning.  The sharing occurred as the group watched the sunset into the Pacific Ocean.

A group dinner followed with great food, drinks and fun conversations about the shared experiences from the day.


Leading Dimensions Profile Session

Leading Dimensions Profile Session

Group breakfast at 7:30am once again provided an opportunity to show appreciation for the tropical surroundings while enjoying great coffee and food.  After breakfast the group returned to the classroom for an icebreaker activity followed by a learning module on Self-Awareness.  The self-awareness module leveraged the Leading Dimensions Profile (LDP) a 95 question psychometric assessment tool which helps leaders to understand themselves better.  The LDP measures an individuals achievement drive and relationship drive.   Developing a better understanding of these two dimensions and the five factors that measure each provided the participants with insights into their leadership style and leadership brand.

The next session was round two of individual business challenge sharing.  Once again under the tiki hut participants shared insights and input into individual business challenges.  "I really enjoyed the business challenge opportunity session where you get to talk about what your business challenge is in front of the group," according to Kevin, the co-founder of a successful startup.

After the business challenge session and lunch the group enjoyed their free time and one on one coaching sessions.  During the one on one coaching, participants gained additional insights regarding their Leading Dimensions Profiles and discussed changes they hope to make with their leadership style and approach upon returning home from the program.

Riding the waves

Riding the waves

Because surfing is reliant on having the right tide, the surfing lesson for Tuesday was held from 3:30-5:30pm.  As a group we discussed the importance of timing to leadership and business decisions.  Much like timing the tide for a surf session, business leaders must time their moves appropriately.  Whether they are timing their entry into a new market or choosing the right time to provide feedback to an under-performing employee. We used surfing as a metaphor for being an effective business leader.  After stretching on the beach and studying the ocean again, the group paddled out to work on more technical aspects of surfing.  The focus here was on preparation and setting oneself up for success. Bella and Erol tailored their input and feedback to the specific needs of each participant leveraging a situational leadership approach to teaching.  Some participants needed to focus more on paddling efficiency, while others needed to focus on board position.  The tips and encouragement resulted in significant progress by all.  The surfing helped build self-confidence and the participants loved encouraging each other.

Tuesday ended with another round of sunset reflections on the beach. This time at Magnific Rock, the location where the surfing lessons were taught in beginners bay.  The learnings for the day really focused on self-awareness and self-confidence gained through the Leading Dimensions Profile Assessment and the success with the surfing lessons.  The participants were clearly exercising mindfulness.

Sunset reflections session

Sunset reflections session

After another big dinner, the participants headed to bed early, tired, yet content from the day.


Wednesday started before sunrise at 5:30am with a dawn patrol surf lesson. Because of the tides and an early departure for the humanitarian aid project, the group ambitiously took to the water early.  A shorter surf session as the sun rose over the hillside provided great conditions for enhancing each person's surfing skills.

Sunrise surf session

Sunrise surf session

A quick shower and breakfast at Buena Onda and then the group loaded up on the bus for the Waves for Water humanitarian aid project.  An hour and a half bus ride through the jungle brought us to a small village and school in the middle of the jungle.  That is where we met Dr. Ruiz and Edna our Nicaraguan Waves for Water guides.  Our project for the day was to visit the local school and to provide clean water filter systems to twenty families.  Participants companies had funded the purchase of water filters as part of the LeaderSurf program tuition. Additionally, the program raises funds through the LeaderSurf/Waves for Water collaboration. Learn more about donating here.

The primitive school serves the village with two rooms, a daycare room and a classroom for students age five to fourteen.  The community is so poor that they cannot afford text books. Recently, part of the roof of the school as well as the light bulbs were stolen.  The students were all very pleased to meet our group and sang us a song and explained a bit about their work.  Several of our program participants brought school supplies and clothing that we donated to the school.  According to Denise, President of a financial services business, "To be able to bring my backpack of school supplies to them and to see the immediate impact was rewarding."

After visiting the school, Edna and Dr. Ruiz assembled the twenty families for a village meeting.  We distributed buckets and the water filters and the families were shown how to assemble their filter systems.  A demonstration of how the filter works and how to clean it was given.  We learned that the well water in that village is unsafe to drink and has led to illness and a high infant mortality rate.  Because the water is unsafe families have to spend what little money they have to buy drinks.  Because soda is the same price as bottled water in the store, they choose soda over water which has led to a diabetes and obesity problem.  Through the LeaderSurf and Waves for Water filter program, the group was able to make the local well-water safe to drink and to provide twenty families with a source of up to 100 gallons of clean water a day for five years.  The project brought local villagers as well as the LeaderSurf participants to tears.  According to a Global Ad Agency Creative Director participant, "The Waves for Water aid project brought me to tears.  It was so eye opening.  Even a little effort like we provided can make a significant impact and help a village.”

The group left the village for a somber bus ride into the colonial village of Granada.  Everyone was humbled by the experience, felt a bit sad, but content that they had made a real difference in the lives of the villagers.  This is servant leadership at its best.  

Granada is one of the oldest cities in the Americas originally settled in 1524.  The beautiful architecture, churches and horse drawn carriages define Granada's charm.  The group enjoyed strolling the streets, sampling local cuisine and shopping for souvenirs.  

The bus returned the LeaderSurf participants to the Buena Onda Beach Resort just in time to hold the sunset reflections session on the beach.  On this day, the session was much more powerful and reflective because the Waves for Water humanitarian aid project had left such an indelible impression on all of the participants.

Another great dinner, a round of pool, a few cocktails and off to bed.  Another impactful day in the learning paradise of Nicaragua.


Thursday continued the routine set forth earlier in the week.  Group breakfast followed by a morning surf lesson to coincide with the right tide.  Then the group did an icebreaker and held a classroom session on conflict management.  The Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument was used to help participants identify their specific conflict style.  The group enjoyed identifying various conflict styles and when to use each style.  The discussion centered around the fact that the word conflict has such a negative connotation, yet conflict is a critical decision making tool.  There were clearly new ways to approach conflict and to leverage it to make better decisions.

TKI LeaderSurf

After lunch the group held another business challenge session under the tiki hut.  The routine of the program and the cadence provided participants with a good model for team and project management.  Each successive business challenge session provided the presenter with better insights as the group became better at providing valuable feedback.  Afternoon one on one coaching session and free time came next.

The Thursday sunset reflections were the final time the group would assemble on the beach to reflect on their learnings.  Most participants shared insights as to how the LeaderSurf program had impacted them and how they were going to commit to new behaviors when they returned home.  One participants commented, "The sunset reflections as a daily activity is something I plan to take back home and do with my wife each day. “

Sunset over Mag Rock

We enjoyed wood oven pizza night together along with Bella and Erol for the final night dinner.  The group clearly had made some strong bonds and relationships with each other.  They committed to staying in touch and serving as a support network for each other.


Friday started with a dawn patrol surf session. This was the final opportunity for the group to be in the water together.  They showed off their skills and how much they had progressed as surfers throughout the week.  Upon exiting the water the participants bid Erol and Bella farewell before returning to Buena Onda for breakfast and the departure for the airport.

The final session at Buena Onda was a classroom based key learning session where each participant shared how the program impacted them and what they would take home with them in terms of new skills, new relationships and memories.  Based on the feedback LeaderSurf clearly is leadership development done differently.

Goodbye Buena Onda

Suhana, a Creative Director participant from South Africa summed it up best, “There are so many highlights to my week at LeaderSurf.  Just being in a completely different environment, learning new skills and not just how to surf.  It is not a vacation it is a learning paradise, which provided eye opening perspectives and experiences.”