By Tor Mesoy
Inspiring leadership examples are all around us. This week I had the chance to observe leadership in the face of danger and risk in a slightly unusual setting – the close encounter with a 4,8 meter long tiger shark at 25 meters’ depth off the island of Beqa, in Fiji.
The encounter was exhilarating. On earlier dives during the preceding week, we had observed a number of sharks of different species, including white-tips, nurse sharks and bull sharks. We were certainly alert – and the adrenalin was flowing freely – when a group of six bull sharks came to within five meters of us. Sharks normally don’t attack humans, of course, but bull sharks are certainly capable of severing a limb, and there have been a number of fatalities.
On this particular dive, the lone tiger shark came in while we were descending, and continued to circle us for 20 minutes. We descended to the bottom and placed ourselves with our backs to a coral wall in order to have some sense of where the shark was coming from. It seemed intensely inquisitive. I am no expert in shark psychology – and I was curious about the shark’s intent. Was it just inquisitive or did it also feel threatened? Or hungry? Might it attack? It certainly seemed useful to stay alert. Stefano, the marine biologist who led this dive, had recommended that we always keep eye contact with the shark. It was daunting to look into the eyes of this agile, elegant animal as it approached … especially at the point when it came straight at me and brushed past me within easy touching distance. I had to crouch on the bottom to avoid the shark bumping into me. This is not common shark behavior. It felt a bit too intimate and after just over 20 minutes, we surfaced. We had collected a truly memorable experience and the saying “quit while you’re ahead” seemed to apply.
So … that was fun. But there is a deeper leadership lesson here. What were the actions that Stefano performed that helped ensure a successful dive? There was real risk involved here. How did he orchestrate the behavior of a group of seven people that he has just met – some of whom had not encountered a shark before and who might freak out? As I reflect on the experience, five critical aspects stand out:
2: Cast vision
3: Script the critical moves
4: Be supportive
5: Move fast
Stefano had spent more than a decade in preparation: getting his formal education in marine biology and performing over a thousand dives in diverse conditions. In a relaxed manner, he shared this preparation so that the entire group rapidly gained confidence in his capabilities. Credibility always makes it easier to lead.
During the dive briefing, Stefano prepared us thoroughly. He spoke openly about the dangers and the risks, but he also shared why he respects and admires the sharks and why it might be meaningful to seek a close encounter with them. His love of what he is doing and his passion for sharks were contagious.
Script the critical moves
Beyond casting vision, Stefano gave specific, detailed instructions. “Keep eye contact with the sharks. Don’t touch them. Check your air frequently, as air consumption can rise markedly when you are under stress. Stay close together to avoid having the shark swim between two divers. Let me know if you want to abort your dive, and we will get you to the surface again”. These specific instructions helped focus our attention so that there was not too much idle mental capacity to spend on the question of what might go wrong.
Stefano led from the front. When the tiger shark got a bit too friendly, he intervened and pushed the shark away. It was clear that Stefano was prepared to accept personal risk if this was required to keep his team safe. His more exposed position made the rest of us trust that we were (probably) OK.
By turning in preparations into a well-orchestrated drill, Stefano left little time for doubt and speculation. As soon as our boat was in position, he asked us to move fast. Don gear. Gather in the water at the surface. Descend together to maximal depth as rapidly as equalization would permit. This left little time for doubt, speculation, and second thoughts about seeking this encounter. The well-rehearsed drill focused our attention and strengthened our confidence that Stefano knew exactly what he was going.
Inspiring leadership examples are all around us. These five aspects are clearly applicable to other challenging situations that require clear leadership – be they personal or organizational. I’ll be inspired by this experience for a long time.
Tor regularly writes articles on his LinkedIn profile. You can visit his profile and follow him to receive the latest content and leave comments.