The Clear Link Between Learning To Surf and Leadership

When people first hear about the LeaderSurf program, they think that a leadership development program with a surfing component is far fetched.  "Sounds like a boondoggle or a vacation" is a typical response, but that is far from the truth.  Leadership development is an exploration of self-awareness, pushing ourselves out of our comfort-zones and into our learning zones and trying out new behaviors.  None of those elements of true leadership development can be effectively achieved in a traditional classroom.

Learn to Paddle

LeaderSurf was described by one poetic participant as "a learning paradise, which provided eye opening perspectives and experiences.”  A small group of business executives spend a week together at a tropical beach resort on the pacific coast of Nicaragua.  A two hour bus journey through the jungle opens the participants eyes to the way that locals live.  This builds an important perspective on how people in less developed countries live.

Daily leadership development modules, psychometric instruments, executive coaching, a day of humanitarian aid and business challenge sharing are all important components of the LeaderSurf program.  The daily surfing lessons are just one component of the overall program.  The surfing lessons stretch the mind, body and soul.

When was the last time you learned a new physical skill?

Most people thirty five or older don't have the time nor the patience to learn something new, more importantly learning a new physical skill requires being comfortable being uncomfortable.  Surfing is the perfect physical skill to learn because it provides such a good metaphor for leadership.


1) Study the Landscape

The first step in learning to surf is learning to read the ocean.  The ocean is an ever evolving fluid landscape, but to the trained eye patterns emerge.  The best surfers watch the water and study the ocean before entering the water much like a business executive will study the market landscape before entering a new business or launching a new product.  The first surfing lesson at leadership involves a twenty minute observation session followed by feedback from each of the participants regarding what they saw and what they learned.

Studying the ocean landscape

2) Learn to Fail

Safety is important to surfing.  The ocean can be dangerous if you don't respect it and pay close attention to your surroundings.  The LeaderSurf lessons focused on board safety and learning to fall the right way.  Imagine teaching leaders how to fail gracefully?  That is what this lesson amounted to.

Learn to fail gracefully


What non-surfers don't realize is that surfing is misrepresented in all the cool photos we see of people surfing.  The truth is that surfing is 80% paddling, 15% sitting and 5% riding a wave.  The sport really should be called paddling since the majority of the time a surfer spends in the ocean is spent paddling, but photos of people paddling just are no where near as cool as photos of someone riding a wave.

According to Erol our head surf instructor, "surfing is not about luck, it is about hard work."  LeaderSurf participants learn the techniques required to paddle efficiently, position themselves on the board and to position the board at the right spot to catch a wave.  In actuality a surfer cannot control the ocean, rather they control their reaction to it.  A surfer positions themself to be caught by the wave versus catching a wave.  This is a good lesson in how we must control what is within our control and react to others and the world around us.  An important lesson in leadership and influence.

Paddle, Paddle, Paddle

Paddle, Paddle, Paddle

 "The ocean is a perfect example of a force that cannot be controlled - much like a lot of things in business. How you navigate the ocean and the surfing is also a great metaphor on how to manage tough business scenarios." According to one LeaderSurf participant. 

Learning to surf provided the participants with camaraderie, a physical outlet during the program and an opportunity to reconnect with nature in a meaningful way.

"Surfing was a great physical break from the mental learning, again, it was a chance to challenge yourself to learn something new. Furthermore, it offered the perspective that you can update your views about yourself. I never thought I would be able to do it - but there I was at this late stage in my adult life, learning what I could have learnt in my teens. I think it's a fantastic tie-in with the leadership experience which requires similar skills - listening, bravery, constant checking in on progress, respect and self forgiveness as well as the ability to have fun along the journey!"

Joel LeaderSurf

4) Play To Your Strengths

Leadership is about confidence and self awareness.  Learning to surf builds both.  As someone catches their first wave they realize that they have the power to learn something new and that power translates into motivation and confidence to continue to strive and to improve.  The thrill of riding a wave can last a lifetime, but once someone catches one wave, they are hungry to catch another and that thirst for more never dies.  That is the beauty of surfing and why it is a great way to build personal strength and leadership capability.