Want to be a better leader? Try Scuba Diving....

Want to be a better Leader? Try SCUBA Diving…

   travis 2             I’m SCUBA Diving 100 feet underwater, enjoying the crystal-clear waters of Porpoise Bay, BC, when suddenly my regulator makes a strange noise and goes in to free flow. For those of you who may not know, a free flow from your SCUBA air system is akin to a vein in your arm painlessly popping open and you watch your life’s blood spray about. A SCUBA regulator provides air on demand. You inhale, the diaphragm opens and provides air; you exhale, the diaphragm closes and allows your exhaled air to escape. Regulators are designed to fail open so you can continue to breath. My brain, I found out, is designed to freak out when this happens…

                My chosen career is in Software Development. I am a Senior Manager of Tech Products & Solutions for a large corporation. My day-to-day includes leading multiple development teams creating a suite of applications using numerous technologies. Budgets, deadlines, stress, difficult personalities, corporate politics, successes, failures, you name it I live it. Many of you reading this, I’m sure are in similar positions. It is incredibly important for us who are blessed enough to have high paying albeit high pressure careers to have our escapes. I have found one of my favorite stress relievers is SCUBA diving. I also found that SCUBA has provided an opportunity to be both a better leader and a better follower. And, per the above, forcing me in to situations where circumstances dictate which of those two roles I must choose.

It was not my intent that SCUBA be a stress outlet when I enrolled to obtain my Open Water SCUBA Certification. My family was headed to Mexico on a cruise ship and I told my brother I wanted to snorkel in Cabo. He eloquently stated, “Snorkeling is for “weenies” who can’t SCUBA dive.” (He used a way more colorful term than weenies, but you get the picture.) Nothing like sibling rivalry to push you in to an extreme sport! But, after my first certification I was hooked. By the time he and I dove in Cabo, I had obtained my Advanced Open Water and Rescue Diver certifications, with almost three times as many dives logged over three months in the frigid waters of Puget Sound as he had in almost ten years.

What really got me hooked was the diving community created by Argonaut Diving (www.argonautdiving.com) where I was taking my courses. The mostly volunteer Instructors made learning and practicing SCUBA such a great experience. Having been in a Leadership position for nearly fifteen years, it was an incredible journey of surrender to those with superior knowledge and practice.   Moreover, I was observing Leaders who were literally taking their followers lives in to their hands. If I have a bad day, other than feelings nobody gets hurt. My SCUBA Instructors don’t have that luxury. It’s a huge responsibility, but one that is rewarded by big smiles and amazing experiences for the students.

The other critical component to SCUBA diving is that it’s a Buddy Sport. From your first lesson in the pool, you learn to dive with someone. In order to even consider diving solo, you must have a ridiculous amount of both training and equipment. All your early training dives and the significant majority of recreational dives are performed as a Buddy Team.   What makes that even more interesting is that you may not know the person with whom you are diving. The only commonality you have to each other is trust in your respective training and subsequent experience.

So back to Porpoise Bay. This just happens to be my logged dive number 40. 40 dives is a lot like a pilot with 100 hours: just enough knowledge to be both cocky and dangerous. My regulator is now free flowing and my brain is freewheeling. My body does me no favor in juicing me up with a healthy dose of adrenaline and I kick like hell over to my Dive Buddy. And, did I mention he and I have been paired together for the first time EVER? He doesn’t know me or my style and I don’t know his. I claw at his leg and he turns to see my regulator roiling air and flapping like a fish caught in my mouth. He tries to help by offering his alternate air source.

I’m flailing and knock it from his hands.

He calmly tries to obtain control of me by grabbing the shoulder strap of my BCD. I’m still flailing, I go to grab his hand and accidentally purge my deflator valve. Now I’m sinking. I hit my mask on his knee, it fills with water. Now I’m blind and panicking. My brain whispers I need to clear my mask, so with eyes squeezed as tightly closed as possible, I attempt to do so. My Dive Buddy sees my eyes closed; he thinks I’m out cold.

Now he’s panicking.

His training kicks in and he grabs my BCD where I can’t push him away and he hits my inflator. My mask is cleared just in time for another diver to swim over to help. She is someone I had dove with often and she had been a big part of my training. She tries to help calm me down, but my brain is in such a state I can’t even recognize her. I push her away and my Dive Buddy and I rocket to the surface. Yes, from 100 feet. Our saving grace is that we had been down less than 5 minutes, so minimal risk of the dreaded “bends.” I’m hyperventilating to the point I couldn’t have held my breath if I tried.

We surface and the dive boat is right there. The captain had seen the violent surge of bubbles and was at the ready. My Dive Buddy is breathless and sheet white. I can barely breathe and can feel my heart pounding like a jackhammer. The captain is a volunteer EMT, he asks the pertinent questions. Are you OK? Are either of you hurt? Do you need Oxygen? Since neither of us can speak, we both signal “OK.” After a few minutes recovery, we climb back on to the boat. At this point the adrenaline has worn off and my shame is palpable. He and I remove our equipment, both visibly shaking.

This was not a training dive, but my Instructor Fred was on the trip. As he and everyone else climb back aboard, they all want to know what happened. My Dive Buddy and I tell our respective tales of the incident. With the danger passed, we can laugh now. I still feel like an idiot. As the boat moves to the next dive site, others offer comfort and a knowing smile. Many chime in with their tales of learning under similar conditions.

We get to the next dive site, I’m not sure I want to dive again. Fred provides an alternate solution. He pulls my Dive Buddy over along with another Instructor. He says we’re all diving together and we’re going to perform a training exercise. When we hit 60 feet, he wants me to signal freeflow and he wants me and my Dive Buddy to do it right this time. Reluctantly, in we go. At about 55 feet, my regulator decides to help and again goes in to freeflow. With less pressure, the flow is minimal, but makes for a nice kickoff. I swim up to my Dive Buddy, who has been watching me like a hawk, and signal freeflow. He is at the ready with his alternate. I take it, we share his air. We start to go up. Fred signals stop. He signals for a 3 minute safety stop; exactly what we should have done coming up from 100 feet. Together, we hover at 15 feet. While breathing from his alternate, we can look at mine. We get it to stop freeflowing. I switch to my alternate; again, exactly what I should have done the first go around. But as you know, hindsight and all that…

After the safety stop, we surface with my Dive Buddy and I feeling much better. Fred does a quick debrief and then sends him off with the other Instructor to go enjoy a fun dive. Fred and I return to the boat. He explains there is no way I should be diving with a faulty regulator, so if I want to keep diving I’ll need a different one. While we wait for the other divers to return he has me perform the exercise with him again on the boat. Drill it until it becomes natural. Once I feel comfortable, he gets me a new regulator and my Dive Buddy and I get 5 more successful dives in that weekend.

Pretty intense, huh? I can hear your thoughts: “Uhh, Travis, I’m really not sure that is the kind of story one tells in an article titled, ‘Want to be a better Leader? Try SCUBA Diving…’” Well, stay with me.

SCUBA is now my sport of choice. I’m nearing 200 logged dives and am now a certified SCUBA Instructor, thanks to mentoring under Fred. My Dive Buddy and I are great friends and we dive often. But, here’s the crazy part, SCUBA has influenced my leadership style immensely and propelled my career forward. I have been promoted twice since starting SCUBA diving just over a year and a half ago. My teams and Senior Leaders have been giving me positive feedback like never before, and it’s because I am a better leader than ever before. When I receive constructive feedback I assimilate it faster and more effectively. I can boil it down to 5 reasons:

Humility – with SCUBA diving you are choosing to surrender to your environment. Like the story above, if you fight it, you are not going to win. Learn to give up your ego, listen to others, and watch yourself improve. When I learned to employ this in my corporate role, it became as easy as swimming with a current over fighting against one.

Confidence – SCUBA Diving is unnatural. Your brain says underwater = no air, no air = bad. As you master SCUBA, your anxiety around this rapidly dwindles and you feel the magic of controlling yourself in an unfamiliar way. Giving yourself permission to feel insecure about this new endeavor and then experiencing what it feels like to succeed is what we all strive for in our everyday life. It makes you fearless in a leadership role, because you know whatever the task or assignment may be, you can knock it out of the park.

Peer Power – you cannot succeed alone, and to even attempt to do so in SCUBA is fraught with danger. Also, you don’t always get the same Dive Buddy. SCUBA teaches you to build your network of peers, find your commonalities, and watch as you make each other better.

Serenity – SCUBA truly is an escape. It is otherworldly. You see things that 98% of the global population will never see. Phones don’t ring underwater, emails don’t send, text messages don’t receive. Enjoy the time away. Understand that ‘unplugging’ has more value than can be described in words.

Gratitude – over drinks one night, my Dive Buddy in the story above thanked me for the lessons learned. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thanked Fred and he’s thanked me. I feel appreciated by my SCUBA friends and I learn the importance of showing appreciation. We all should show more gratitude, and what better avenue than for the person diving beside you who literally has your life in his/her hands?

Written by Travis A Sterner


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