SEPTEMBER 25, 2014

Persistence and Leadership: A Story of an Epic Swim

Persistence and Leadership: A Story of an Epic Swim

-Written By Dr. Rebecca Cory

mapmyswimThis weekend I completed the longest swim of my life. It was about 2.5 miles (swim distances are never precise, as you never swim a straight line) as I circumnavigated Seward Park in Seattle. Seward Park, for those of you not from Seattle, is a city park that is a peninsula in Lake Washington. You can park your car, enter the water on the North side of the peninsula, swim for two and a half miles and exit the water on the south side of the peninsula, about 100 yards from your car. This makes it ideal for a long swim, as you can stay close to shore, never backtrack, and swim long.

As I swam this weekend, I reflected on how my swim was a metaphor for leadership:

Sometimes it isn’t about Precision, it is about Forward Motion

I love to swim and found a passion for open water swimming about four years ago. The ability to just walk into a body of water and swim wherever I want, gives me freedom. I’m not a fan of chlorine or flip-turns, but with Lake Washington always free and always open, I can swim as far as I want whenever I want. Open water swimming also de-emphasizes precision and stroke. An open water swimmer has to breathe on the side where the waves don’t hit her in the face. And she needs to lift her eyes every few strokes to ensure she is on track. An open water swimmer doesn’t have a line on the bottom of the pool to follow, so she needs to forge her own path through the openness.

Sometimes, as a leader, the focus on precision and clear paths keeps us from making forward progress. Leading by going where the water is calmer, can be beneficial, if otherwise the waves would keep you from getting there.

The greatest accomplishments are the ones we are not sure we will achieve.

The first mile of my swim was out of a cove and into the wind. The waves were strong and the wind was heavy. It was one of the most hard-fought swims I’ve ever done. I would look at a landmark on shore and think there was no way I’d ever get there. Then I’d swim and swim and swim, and only make it part of the way. I’d have to take a breath, and keep going. Eventually I’d get there. Then I’d pick the next landmark goal. Many times during this first mile, I wanted to give up. Many times I was truly unsure I’d make it. I knew I always had the option to swim to shore, climb out, and walk back to my car. This wasn’t something I wanted to do, but it was an option. When I finished the swim, I looked back on that first mile and the doubts I had. It make the victory of completion that much sweeter.

As a leader, doing something you know how to do is easy. True leadership skills are proven when accomplishing something you are unsure how to do.

swimgogglesAchievement is a Mental Game

The swim got hard at times. Not just the fight against the wind of the first mile, but the fatigue of two solid hours of swimming. The motion sickness from mild dehydration coupled with the motion of boat wakes. The goggle headache from two hours of suction around my eyes. It was physically uncomfortable. There were times I just wanted to quit. But I didn’t. When I got tired or uncomfortable I refocused myself. Reminded myself of the goal. Gave myself a pep-talk about persistence and accomplishment. And kept swimming.

Leadership, similarly, can be a mental game. As a leader you not only have to motivate yourself, but your team to keep moving toward the goal. Projects can get uncomfortable, but with a reminder of the outcome, and a refocusing of the team, you can get there.

Dr. Cory is an associate professor and the associate program director for Higher Education and Adult Learning at CityU’s School of Applied Leadership

Leadership Faculty Dr. Cory


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