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Leadership lessons from the pool

When you swim you have nothing to do but think, which these days is a rare indulgence.

4 min read




Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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Swimmers are odd ducks. Day after day we haul ourselves out of warm beds and plunge into cold pools, where we kick and pull, back and forth, lap after lap, until we’ve convinced ourselves we’ve accomplished something. To dry-landers, the whole enterprise appears nonsensical. It’s hard to argue with that when you’re face-down in the water.

That said, in addition to its myriad physiological benefits, swimming provides significant psychological succor. The pool is one of the few remaining domains unsullied by phone calls, emails, texts and posts (for now). When you swim you have nothing to do but think, which these days is a rare indulgence.

There’s nothing like allowing your mind to soak on a subject as you eat up the yards. I’ve come up with some of my finest ideas watching the thick black line on the bottom go by. I’ve also had time to meditate on more general matters; call them leadership lessons from the pool. Here’s a baker’s dozen.

  1. “When the water’s cold, the best way to warm up is to get swimming.” Starting something new can be just plain intimidating. Standing on deck staring at the surface isn’t going to get it done. Dive in.
  2. “Be careful when the water feels relaxing.” If you choose, you can make a training pool feel like a hot tub. Don’t get too comfortable — you’ll be sweating soon.
  3. “There will always be resistance. Getting through it gracefully is the point.” Want to make progress with increasing efficiency? Learn how to reduce resistance.
  4. “You can add speed to form, but not vice versa.” Tempo is temporary. Form is forever. 
  5. “Flailing is the first step in drowning.” Activity does not equal results, and it can be utterly exhausting. Sometimes the key to survival is to do less.
  6. “It’s OK to go through the motions occasionally, as long as you maintain your discipline.” Some days you’re just not feeling it. Resist the temptation to stay in bed and pull the covers over your head.
  7. “It doesn’t matter how deep the water gets if you swim on the top.” Fear is unproductive. If you know what you’re doing, do it with confidence. And enjoy the view.
  8. “Treading water is a skill.” Sometimes you have no way to move forward. Recognize that it’s temporary and conserve your energy.
  9. “The closer you are to the bottom, the more you’ll notice your progress.” It’s simple physics: The narrower your field of vision, the easier it is to judge if you’re making headway.
  10. “Races are won and lost on the turns.” No pursuit heads in the same direction forever. Knowing how and when to initiate a turn can mean the difference between worst and first.
  11. “Waves should be welcomed.” Nobody wants to choke. The best way to avoid doing so is to learn how to breathe in rough water.
  12. “If the pace is too slow, you can always work on your stroke.” We all swim in circles occasionally. When you can’t be as productive as you would like, look for other ways to improve.
  13. “You can curse the pain for revealing you’re weak, or bless it for making you strong.” The struggle is never pleasant. The sense of accomplishment you get by overcoming it always is.

In swimming, as in life, the difference between those who learn to thrive and those who take a dive is whether they view the water as friend or foe. That which slows you down can also lift you up. The choice is yours.