Why Today’s Leaders Must Surf, Not Sail

Why Today’s Leaders Must Surf, Not Sail

Change happens. And once upon a time, all that was expected of business leaders was to “manage” it: prevent it or minimize its impact, make the proper adjustments, and establish a new status quo as soon as possible–until it happens again. And until very recently, this was enough. In fact, the ability to effectively manage change was the mark of a visionary entrepreneur or executive.

No more. Today, the rate of change is increasing exponentially, never allowing anything to settle, or us to relax. For example, in the media business, every new innovation (the latest is the iPad) forces a cascade of change that challenges every strategic assumption before its introduction. Leaders in our industry aren’t just being sent back to the drawing board–we now live there.

There are tons of management books on coping with or embracing change, but far fewer on celebrating it and even making it happen intentionally. It’s time for all of us to accept that it is no longer enough to merely tolerate change in our businesses and our careers. If our economy is to thrive going forward, we must celebrate change–even when the status quo was working just fine only yesterday. It is critical to learn how to be a leader in a world of constant change.

Here’s another way to look at it. The 20th century metaphor for great business leadership was the captain of industry trained to navigate the marketplace in constant search of the calm waters and safe ports of the status quo. The most legendary captains boasted a reputation for bringing the cargo (goods and services) and crew (employees) through the worst economic storms via tried-and-true management techniques, trusted business models and predictable market cycles. The big waves and stormy waters of change were scary, nerve-wracking emergencies requiring all hands on deck to batten down the hatches to avoid being shipwrecked.

I’m calling for a new model of business leadership: the big wave surfer. This new brand of leader is not looking to avoid the big waves; she is intent on chasing them and riding them out, taking the experience from each wave to better prepare her to ride the next, even bigger one. In fact, she and her surfer colleagues are literally willing to go anywhere in the world for the opportunity to catch giant waves of change. Also, while the captain needs time to secure the ship and prepare for the next wave (which most of his passengers and crew hope will never come), surfers not only expect waves to come one after another in succession, they are thrilled about it. Surfing would be a totally unrewarding endeavor if waves were non existent or were small, few and far between.

Both types of leaders need to recognize the difference between potentially catastrophic disruptions and the waves of change that often accompany them. Experienced sailors and expert surfers alike know that it’s foolish to not seek safety in the face of the lightning and hurricane force winds that often accompany violent storms. And both have to show courage and sound judgment in the face of unpredictable, fluid circumstances. The difference is one of mindset: Are waves of change cause for anxiety or excitement? It should be noted that our physiological responses in anticipation of both grave threats and great thrills–heightened senses, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat–are nearly identical. It’s just a matter of which lens we choose to interpret our experience through.

We can no longer afford to view change as a source of stress and anxiety to be avoided and feared. Instead we must see it as a source of excitement and energy–and even fun–to be initiated and harnessed. We must learn–and teach–how to be a leader in a world of constant change. Let’s do more than wait for it to happen to us. Let’s seek it out and make it happen.