Surfing and Engagement: Watch. Paddle. Pivot. Iterate. Learn. Develop Organizations that do!

Eyeing The Surf
Rick Hansen.jpg

A guest post by our friend Rick Hansen, author of Leadership and The Art of Surfing



Create engagement and unleash innovation in every person at every level of every organization through autonomy, accountability … and a little bit of surfing.  I am passionate about surfing and creating a culture of engagement within organizations. I use what I’ve learned in both to build, motivate and lead teams and individuals to amplify potential such that they are transformed and engaged. A wave is like a mirror to the soul. It reflects our fear, our willingness, our vision; it dares us forward and exposes us to extreme truth.

A wave is like a mirror to the soul. It reflects our fear, our willingness, our vision; it dares us forward and exposes us to extreme truth.”
— Easkey Britton/Rick Hansen
Easkey Britton

Easkey Britton

Big wave surfer Easkey Britton says, “It’s that fear of failure that holds us back. In surfing, our wipeout is the first trick we learn.”  Like the wave that helps us peer into our own soul, great leaders likewise see and then reflect greatness in the lives of those they lead. Great leaders dare those they lead to see a truth never before spoken. Leaders today require things like empathy, compassion, hope, and an ability to architect a new context unlike any time before.  To truly engage our people, we must connect to our teams and individuals like the surfer to a wave.

A surfer doesn’t use commands or controls to establish connectivity, structure, or relationship to the sea. He instead watches like a student the natural churn of the surf and paddles himself into the energy of its epicenter.  There he carefully sits and studies the line-up until he chooses his wave as it emerges on the horizon. He paddles to it, pivots into its rising pitch, and drops down the emerald wall where he begins the journey of the “stoke.” In that drop he begins to create and iterate on his movement as he cascades up and down the face of the wave like a sculptor shaping his art.  In this dance is where he learns about himself, the sea, the challenge, the journey, and the undulations of innovation.  He humbly but confidently connects to something bigger than himself and interconnects his mind to the edge while he creates over and over until learning - both failing and succeeding - becomes like breathing. 

Surfers watch the waves to understand. They paddle to the wave to engage. They pivot into the wave to create. They iterate on the wave to connect. And they learn about themselves, their strengths, and the power of collaboration to advance and amplify.  If leaders are to develop teams and organizations where engagement and innovation rank high, they must adopt a similar process as they build, motivate and lead their teams.   


We are hardwired to solve, create, learn, and develop, and yet organizations worldwide focus on bettering weaknesses vs. strengths to fit corporate agendas. They leave the person behind. Perhaps that is why employee engagement is at a crisis level because organizations still drive motivation with “carrot and sticks" (Gallup).

We are designed with an intrinsic, deeply hardwired DNA that far outweighs the biological (sex, food, drink) and environmental (reward, punishments) drivers once thought paramount in building teams and engagement. Gallup says, “It’s been nearly three years since [it] announced its stunning finding that engagement in the American workplace had fallen to crisis levels. In what became the shot heard ‘round the world in business, the research firm revealed that 70% of the nation’s working population admits to being disengaged in their jobs (i.e., content with collecting a paycheck while investing little of their hearts in their work) – and that nearly 1 in every 5 workers is so discontent that they’re perversely motivated to undermine the effectiveness of their bosses and organizations” (


Watch: Understand the lay of the land

I sat still on the shore with my toes sifting through the sand watching the sets roll in like slumbering giants.  It looked big - big enough to pause - but not so big that I paused enough to leave my board under the shade of the coconut trees. The water churned with energy bubbling and frothing with intent. My board sat listless in the sand but waiting to plunge into the swirl and head toward the pitch. Before every session  I perform a ritual of observation. Whether in the parking lot, leaning on a sea wall, fidgeting my toes deep into the sand, or simply lean against my truck, I study the surf.  Every wave and every session has a personality. They’re like people filled with varying traits, preferences, angles, stories, moods, influences, and peculiar nuance. The wave needs to be understood to effectively engage. Like the proverb from 2x world champion John Lawerence, “Watch for a while. Watch from the beach longer than you normally would. Look for patterns and be a skeptic with your mind.  It’s usually twice as hard to do in real life what you are doing in your head.” The pause is always a good thing - in leadership and surfing.

LeaderSurf participants studying the ocean before entering it

LeaderSurf participants studying the ocean before entering it

I learned the art of the pause through surfing and my lifelong battle with stuttering.  I had to watch and listen and learn before the words could even make it out of my mouth.  My struggle with stuttering helped me develop a discipline of overcoming obstacles and helped develop my compassion and empathy for others.  It forced me to pause. A good leader is not just there to give direction and verbal queues, but he or she is there to pause and listen so they can understand. Watch the people and teams a bit before you try and lead them.  See the chemistry, the friction, the personalities, and most important see the individual and their strengths.  “Watch what the wave does every time.”

Paddle: Be nimble and adaptive in approach

Every time I paddle out, it’s both a tactical and strategic positioning in constantly shifting conditions. Sometimes the paddle is long and arduous like a climb to Everest, and others it’s a pithy and quick jaunt like a gazelle leaping across the plains. Typically as I paddle out, I’ve already picked the spot where I want to sit in the lineup yet being fully aware of the environment that is likely to shift and move. Therefore my plan has to remain lucid. I know I will have to adapt constantly. I am constantly eyeing  my destination within the context of shift. For example, in the paddle I  assess the energy of the water from the waves, the currents undulating beneath me, the angle the waves as they pitch, the tides evolving pattern, and the crowd of people already in the water. I do all of this as I eye the horizon to find my wave; it’s a constant assessment of emergent influences … and that occasional dolphin or seal.

Like a great leader building a team, I constantly evaluate my strategy, tactics, and position realizing that to be nimble, adaptable, and aware is the only way to see forward and catch a great ride or build a great team.

Pivot: Provide an untraditional environment of both autonomy and accountability

The pivot is key. It positions us for what surfers call the “stoke.” The surfer literally finds this stoke within the turbulence as exploding waves break apart the molecules of water and air to release charged ions. Science says surfers literally feel “stoked” in this altered atmospheric state.


Surfers are deeply connected to the randomness of the ocean responding to unsuspecting movements of the sea. He finds its hidden momentum, and surfs. He finds the peak of the wave as it emerges and rides its evolving shape, is at home in the randomness, and thrives on the edge.  Only on that edge of the wave can he create.  Only on the edge of the wave can he live.

Every wave I paddle and pivot into aligns to what Easkey Britton says, “When you get in the water and catch a wave, you own your life again. Surfing gives you great inner strength.” There is both a freedom and consequence in decision and vision that surfing gives to those that engage.  In the pivot, permission is either given or taken according to the adaptability and position of the surfer on each and every wave.  You see, the wave holds the surfer accountable. It either gives freedom in the drop to begin innovating and expressing an inner vision of that ride or it will slap him into the whitewash like a passionate coach  might chant to a player “try again.”  Pivoting your team to lean into the experience and the vision means you have to both provide an arena where trust and empathy is paramount while accountability and responsibility to mission is center. And it can’t be done in a traditional bureaucratic environment. Corporations need to have a startup environment for these risks and ideas to succeed and thrive. You have to dedicate your commitment to people that wake up every day with a passion to do things in a way that’s different if you want to build a culture that pushes your team to paddle back to the pivot over and over again.

The pivot on the wave is not just about position but about experimenting and learning in order to find the edge and feel the “stoke.”  A key part of the job as a leader is to “bring everyone with you and get everyone to the same place you are.” (Chris Dargis)

Iterate: Creative expression and exploring the unknown

On the wave, cascading down the drop of the pitch we find our place in the greater ecosystem.  We discover in the wave that the joy of innovation and creation is innate to our design, our very being. It is there on the wave we are allowed to tap into that DNA within the restraints of the wave and innovate and create to the degree and the extent that we are willing to push and press our own boundaries.  That’s why we love to surf. We can carve or cruise, sink into the unfolding, emerging pitch, or pick our line and nimbly follow its lure.

Surfing is freedom while at the same time it is respect of a system greater than any one person. The context of the sea and the environment of the surfing culture is about inspiring honest rebellion against the linear approach society and industry has put on people so that we can engage in the power of creating.  As leaders, we must turn away from the legacy of organizational history that has reduced our interactions to cold, scaleable process and precision. Instead, we must learn to create environments where unpredictability is expected and bottom-up, emergent phenomena is encouraged so that amazing novelty becomes the competitive advantage.

In a book called “Collective Genius,” it says that to truly build, motivate and lead individuals and teams that are innovative the leader must focus on architecting 1) collaboration, 2) discovery driven learning, and 3) integrative decision making. Understanding the context of the wave within the system of the ocean is what draws the surfer not just into a session where she paddles and pivots into an occasional wave, but rather puts her into an opportunity to create new learnings and explore the untouched.  It is the place where she comes alive. 

Innovation is primarily about evolution, not revolution. It’s about ‘slow hunches’ not sudden bright flashes … and more about collaboration around the adjacent possible. “If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come just from giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where ideas can connect.” -Steven Johnson

Learn: Failing is an integral and safe part of progress

The ultimate challenge of learning is a willingness to embrace and accept failure as the pivotal stepping stones of success.  I learned that as I overcame my stutter.

Easkey Britton Tackling her fears and a big wave

Easkey Britton Tackling her fears and a big wave

I stated above the wily insight from big wave surfer Easkey Britton who surfs waves upwards of 50-60 feet on the coast of Ireland.  “It’s that fear of failure that holds us back. In surfing, our wipeout is the first trick we learn.” The beauty of surfing is the balanced combination of autonomy and accountability.  In other words, when I surf I am free to surf any wave I want and to create on the wave any way I choose within the boundaries of my own limits and the emerging pitch and size of the wave.  If I drop to late into the pitch I will get plunged into the “falls” and get tossed around like clothes in washing machine. If I get too deep in the barrel,  I will get swallowed up by the wave and slapped into the “spit” of the cascading wave like a rag doll. However, if I find a spot that emerges and hover just at the edge of the preening emerald wall, I am free to innovate and create at whim to the effect where I connect to the system and the surrounding crew of met fellow surfers cheering me on. In surfing, the edge is not just  a place but a state of being.

Leaders hate to fail because of how they will be perceived and employees are afraid to fail because they will be punished.  This is where innovation within accountability marry and produce purpose and innovative power. Failing fast in order to learn is paramount for innovation to thrive.

In organizations and teams, it creates the competitive advantage in our world where the pace of change will never again be never be the same as it is today.  Like Ed Catmull of Pixar says, it’s the “forces of art and commerce.” He continues and says good leadership is anyone who wants to foster creativity and problem solving - a palpable energy, a feeling of collaboration and unfettered creativity… a sense of possibility. 

The biggest threat to innovation is internal politics and an organizational culture, which does not accept failure and/or does not accept ideas from outside, and/or cannot change. -Gartner 2016

If you want to learn more, check out my book “Leadership and the Art of Surfing. Move you team out of the box and into the wave.


About The Author

Rick Hansen works at Accenture's, Fjord Digital Agency as the Global Operations Lead for Digital Product Creation and Digital Design. Rick is located in Austin at the Fjord Austin Studio (previously Chaotic Moon). Rick is focused on growth with a wide expertise in deal origination and execution and operational leadership for complex workflows and multi-disciplined teams. In addition to his digital agency work Rick is an author, speaker, change agent and passionate surfer.