What’s Surfing Got To Do With It

Originally published on Linkedin September 2019

Pressure. It’s a fact of life and it can either make you better or it can crush you. In the corporate world, being great under pressure is often called “Executive Presence.”

Executive presence is one of those hard to define things, kind of like these other difficult-to-define words: Success. Happiness. Pornography. You get the picture.

In my mind, executive presence involves operating from your true nature and being able to handle situations in the moment as they arise, based on a deep reservoir of capability cultivated over time. While it may sound like a contradiction, the people I know with executive presence are both relaxed and energized at the same time.

Recently, I stumbled upon an interview with Tim FerrissLaird Hamilton and Titus Kinimaka. You can watch it here and if you take the time to watch it, you will see two surfing masters talking to Tim Ferriss, who was just learning to surf for his show The Tim Ferriss Experiment. Pay particular attention to their presence and the way they carry themselves as they talk about surfing.

What struck me most as I listened were the principles that they embody. These are very similar to the principles I’ve observed in the corporate world that apply to executive presence – the very ones I’ve been learning and teaching for much of my career. Many of these principles are counter-intuitive, yet they apply across multiple domains. In my “top ten” list below, I highlight moments in their conversation that reveal truths of mastery that apply anywhere and share sometimes embarrassing stories of learning these principles in my own life. Enjoy!

Observe Before Acting

 The conversation started with Tim Ferriss asking about the etiquette and pecking order for a new surfer at a beach. At this point, they are really just getting warmed up and frankly, they sounded arrogant when I first heard it. It’s a miracle I made it past this point of the video. At first glance, it sounded like they were saying they could just go to any beach and get in front of the rest of the surfers because they are the best in the world. (Seriously, I almost cut the video off at this point – I’m so glad I stayed with it.)

Right before I gave up, I started to understand the point. If you are entering into a new domain, go in with humility, not arrogance. Get a local to show you around and give you the lowdown on “how we do it here.” The best executives I have worked with come in asking tons of questions and giving themselves space to learn the lay of the land. Those that come in showing what they know typically don’t last long, or are quickly placed in the “less relevant” bucket.

Laird Hamilton says this about the two different approaches: “You would save yourself a lot of grief to have a local help shepherd you out…One guy comes with attitude and gets his head slapped and the other one comes in respectful and next thing you know he has three friends and having a great time. It’s all about how you present yourself – and it determines your journey.” It helps to ask for help.

Ask for Help

If you really think about it, one of the core principles of leadership is “ask for help”. In fact, true leadership by definition is to ask for help. After all, if you can do all this yourself, you don’t need anyone else.

This can hit the ego hard. But the truth is that leadership is about making requests and eliciting promises much more than it is about showing your stuff or strutting in to arrogantly assume command.

The experienced surfers point this out – while they will be better surfers than anyone else at almost any beach in the world, they go in to a new domain with humility and respect, ready to learn how it’s done here.

Read the Water

Throughout the conversation, the masters spoke of reading the water. “You learn this over years – it’s subtle. You learn to read the waves and read the water and decide when to call your shot.”

This has been a hard-won lesson for me – after getting thoroughly slapped and humiliated by following the logic of “should” rather than reading the waves.

Here’s one of my get slapped stories: In my banking days, several of us on the floor shared an assistant. This is pre iPhone, pre-email, pre laptop days. Damn, that makes me sound old. Anyway, one day I’m coming back from meeting with a huge client and I’ve promised him something. I walked up to my assistant clearly convicted that we needed to deliver this “thing” to the client right now.

She proceeded to do the corporate version of running me through a buzz saw aka “cussing me out”. MY assistant just cussed ME out… Somewhat dazed, I went into my office and wondered what the hell I had missed. With a little coaching from the group manager, I realized that she had been sending me all kinds of signals that she could NOT handle one more thing at this moment. With my attitude of “she SHOULD do this, it’s her JOB”, I walked into a “s$#%storm” because I didn’t read the signs. She was clearly in the middle of something intense and my request would have to wait.

On the topic of reading the water, the surfing masters say this:  “you can spend your whole life trying to understand what a wave does, and that’s really the skill of a great surfer, beyond just the riding is really that… Knowing when you’re going, is it going to break? Is it not going to break? Do I take now, do I go, can I get in, too far in, too far out, I mean all that stuff…wave judgment is key.”

Whether you are making a simple request of a co-worker, making a sales pitch, asking for more resources, negotiating a difficult contract or planting the seed of a new idea, read the water and pick your moment accordingly. You can use your skills to get you to the “wave”, but sometimes, it just isn’t the right time. The more you are attuned to the conditions around you and your own ability, the more likely you will be successful.

Be Present

The conversation really starting diving deeply into the principles of world class performance when Tim Ferriss mentioned that a friend gave him a sticker that said: “Be present, not tense.” It’s about 10 minutes in, and if you watch the conversation, you will sense the depth of being and presence that these surfers carry onto the water.

As Ferriss started talking about being “acutely aware” of the waves and the conditions when you are out surfing, both Laird Hamilton and Titus Kinimaka weighed in on what it truly means to be present – in their world and in life.

As Hamilton says: “…it was meant to be this way. Becoming ‘civilized’ we grew away from that. When you had to run from dinosaurs, you were present. The only thing that there is, is the now…by being there, you are in your most honest form which is in the moment, there is nothing past, nothing future, just then. When you are out (on the water) it’s the most honest way to live.”

So what does NOT being present look like in corporate life? You’re sitting there in the meeting and someone shoots down your idea, sends some negative body language or makes a comment with a clearly sarcastic tone. Suddenly, you are up in your head, thinking “that jerk.” Or “what does he mean?” or you are squirming in your chair dying for the meeting to end.

Not being a surfer, I can’t give a surfing analogy here. However, there is a parallel in my favorite sport of water skiing. You hit a bump on the water and suddenly you are out of balance. At this point, what doesn’t work (trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way) is to keep skiing as if nothing has happened, or let it freak you out. Both of these options will take you off your game or lead to a cartwheel on the water. The first step: get back into good skiing position. From there, you can assess whether or not you can keep skiing. Most of the time, you can.

The same is true in those high stakes conversations at work. Being present means to be aware when the conditions have changed. Rather than freaking out, read the conditions. Get back into a good position. Then take your next action.

Use Your Fear to be at Your Best

When the conversation turned to the subject of fear, my respect went up 10 notches. These guys are the best in the world, and have faced waves that most surfers will never even see in their lifetimes. Surely they don’t have fear, right? Wrong! Their take on fear is one of respect, not denial.

Laird Hamilton: “Being scared is a sign of intelligence – some people come with no fear and if they survive it, they will get it (fear).”

It’s not just the ride that is scary. Imagine the falls when the wave pounds down on you from several feet in the air. You can be held under for a long time – they call this the second ride – and it’s the reason I don’t surf!

In this conversation, they made an interesting distinction about having feared and survived many times: “There is a line where you become complacent. Where you’ve been scared so many times that your scared is not the same anymore. Cultivate a relationship with that fear, where it can make you either smarter and stronger or make you too complacent. Hopefully it makes you smarter.”

We often would rather not own up to our fears. After all, we should know how to do this, right? Whether in the context of investing, making a high stakes decision, confronting egregious behavior at the office or taking a different position than the crowd, fear can paralyze us. These may not be life or death, surfer-like conditions, yet we will still face fear. The truth is, fear is a part of the human condition.

The core principle I take away from this conversation is keep a healthy relationship with fear, where you don’t fear the fear, nor do you make friends with the fear. You allow it to exist alongside you to keep you sharp.

Nothing is Personal

The ocean can teach us the great lesson that nothing is personal. Just because Laird Hamilton is the “greatest surfer to ever live” does not mean that the ocean cuts him any breaks.

As Laird Hamilton notes: The water is going to do what the water is going to do.

And he is very aware of this: “Surfing, you have to have a relentlessness to master it, because the ocean is relentless. It’s not like the ocean says, when you are trying to paddle out and can’t get there, the ocean says let me call a time out and I will let you out there. The ocean doesn’t care, it’s just going to keep pounding you. It’s what you do that determines whether you make it or not.”

Taking nothing personally was the essential message of my TEDx talk on The Power Of Positive Intent. Notice that people who have genuine executive presence don’t dive into the gutter with everyone else – they find a way to stay above the fray. When you feel yourself getting defensive or feeling attacked, try assuming positive intent.

Like the waves, people are going to do what people are going to do. What they do is personal to them. It is not personal to you. Unless you decide to take it personally.

This has been one of the toughest lessons of my life – one I’m still learning. When you take something personally, it’s like kryptonite to Superman. You have lost your strength.

So remember: nothing is personal.

 Creative Self Expression

What IS personal is the expression that you bring to everything you do. It’s hard to imagine surfing as an outlet for creativity and artistry – until you listen to these guys talk about it.

“You can recognize a guy’s style from anywhere.”

Laird Hamilton talks about how he can spot Titus Kinimaka from long distances because of how he holds himself.

And isn’t that the essence of executive presence? How you hold yourself – especially under pressure – says volumes about your experience, inner strength and ability to respond creatively to the moment.

Awareness

 Developing awareness brings the best of you to the surface. Knowing that you don’t know everything keeps your ego in check and allows the real you to shine through.

These guys talk about the oblivious dude on the paddleboard who almost hit a woman’s head several times. He was completely unaware, and more than likely caught up in his own head and fear.

That can happen in our corporate lives as well. We get caught in a conversation where we may not understand the technical aspects of the situation or the previous dynamics. We don’t want to look stupid so we nod our head and go along and then suddenly, we inadvertently step out in a way that hurts our credibility. (The stories I have about doing this myself are too numerous to share.)

Better to acknowledge what you don’t know and ask questions. It starts with awareness – including knowing when you are making mistakes.

Feedback Makes You Better

 When I led a credit training group in banking, we made the distinction between someone who had 20 years of real experience and 1 year of experience 20 times. How could we tell the difference? Those who kept making the same mistakes were not learning.

The surfers make the same distinction. “You have guys that literally surf for 30 years and never get better…they’ve been doing the exact same thing badly for 30 years…they think they are out there ripping it up…to change something, first you have to acknowledge that you are making a mistake.”

They went on to suggest that having a camera or otherwise getting some form of feedback would be helpful for the dude who thinks he’s better than he is. Getting that feedback, especially when you are at the top of the organization and expected to be highly competent is incredibly uncomfortable – and it can make you significantly better.

In this TED talk, Atul Gawande talks about how very uncomfortable and useful it was when he hired a coach to provide feedback on his surgical abilities. Talk about humbling! Yet he decided to push through the discomfort in order to learn.

You can be sure that someone who embodies true executive presence has tolerated deep discomfort in order to stay in a learning mode.

Have Fun

At the end of the conversation, they challenge Tim Ferriss to have fun. At the end of the day, all the work is so that he can enjoy the experience. Our business lives can offer fun as well, if we open ourselves up to it.