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Four lessons the ocean can teach us about effective leadership

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

The ocean is a dynamic and transformative force that can teach us a lot about leadership, says globally recognised business turnaround expert, passionate ocean advocate and surfer Michael Dorn.

Dorn guides top business leaders on how to proactively ride the waves of business growth to remain relevant and successful. He recently relocated with his family from German city life to coastal living in Cape Town, where his international business turnaround firm the RTgroup is now headquartered. Dorn is an international thought leader who has worked inside some of the most famous business rescues in recent history, including Dell, Xerox, and Afrox.

He shares the four lessons the ocean has taught him about successful business leadership*:

1. The ocean teaches us the courage to overcome unpredictable challenges

The ocean is my catnip and my kryptonite. Its sheer power is both hypnotic and dangerous. Even with years of experience, paddling out on a small board towards metre-high crests in the open sea still tests my comfort zone. Do I duck dive safely? Or face the challenge and ride the wave out?

Just as one wave rolls in after the other, we are presented with constant and different challenges in life. It takes immense courage and decisive action to turn those challenges into opportunities. If you don’t move, you sink. Just as humans have learnt to put their bodies in deep water, and swim or sail or ride a wave to achieve something beautiful, we must accept that every definitive moment of our lives encapsulates both dangers and opportunity. Only those who courageously venture out from the shallow shore to the open sea can develop further and go to bed satisfied at the end of the day.

2. Business cycles are like the waves of the ocean

Just like waves that rise, crest and break, companies and their business cycles typically have three phases: growth, and if you do nothing to stay on it, then stagnation and decline. In the fast-paced world of digital disruption these waves or cycles are getting shorter and shorter, but it is possible to move from one wave to the next in quick succession to remain successful. Just like a surfer can learn to stay on his or her feet and move from wave to wave in one continuous, glorious session, business leaders need to learn to stay on their feet in business. Complacency is a recipe for failure, but proactivity – in keeping their products, brands, energy, morale and purpose fresh, in the face of changing tides and incoming trends – is a recipe for success. In business this is called the “S Curve of Change”, a useful tool leaders can use to learn to time their growth phases to go from strength to strength.

Business cycles can be like the waves of the ocean / Photo By: RT group

3. Trust your instincts

Any pro surfer knows that it takes years of practice to hone your instincts, and this enables you to act more swiftly and decisively when bigger and bolder dangers and opportunities present themselves to you over time. The deeper you go in, the bigger the challenges, the less you have the luxury of over-thinking things in that moment. When it’s life or death, sink or swim, you have to be pro-active, courageous and swift in your actions. You don’t always know if you’ll get to ride a wave or if its a wipe out, because you cannot always dictate the outcome of external forces. All that matters is that you arm yourself with the courage, the tools and the support you need to face the unknown as best you can. Fortune favours the bold, as they say.

4. Change is inevitable

Change is daunting but prospects emerge after a process of diagnostic engagement and rigorous implementation; something new that would not have materialised without developing your courage and using all the tools and skills at your disposal. You can always develop new economic solutions, new organisational structures, new strategic paths. You just need a mindset of continuous learning and personal development. This mindset will help you to be ready when it counts, to ride that unknown wave for yourself and your clients when the moment calls for it.

Just like the storms that roll in on the ocean, recent world events have shown us that surprises can make all planning obsolete. No decision-maker currently knows exactly what the future holds – but simply waiting is not the solution either. It’s almost always better to keep moving courageously in uncertainty and re-adjust, than hesitantly standing still and missing the restart. So, the surfer wisdom applies here: “If in doubt, paddle out.”

*The four lessons are an excerpt from Dorn’s Harvard Business Manager (special Germany edition) article from 2019.


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