Learn­ing to fall and pad­dle rid­ing the waves of your ca­reer

Business Day - - OPINION - SUHANA GORD­HAN Gord­han is a cre­ative di­rec­tor in ad­ver­tis­ing.

Ire­cently trav­elled from SA to Nicaragua. It took 33 hours to get to the cap­i­tal, Managua, and then a bumpy, deliri­ous two-and-a-half-hour, dusty road trip to a place called Playa San­tana. The lo­cals call this drive “the Nicaraguan mas­sage”. Joseph Con­rad might have called it a jour­ney into the “heart of dark­ness”, but it was one of the most il­lu­mi­nat­ing ex­pe­ri­ences I’ve ever had.

Our global of­fice was ex­per­i­ment­ing with a lead­er­ship pro­gramme called Lead­erSurf — a one-week course about lead­er­ship skills and learn­ing to surf!

If you’re won­der­ing what rid­ing waves has to do with be­ing a cre­ative di­rec­tor in ad­ver­tis­ing, it’s more than you imag­ined.

The ad­ver­tis­ing growth path is a strange one. You start off as a ju­nior copy­writer or art di­rec­tor, whip­ping your words and ideas into shape. Then one day, you be­come a cre­ative di­rec­tor and you’re asked to whip other teams into shape, to make ideas bet­ter, run your brands, build client re­la­tion­ships and be a leader. There is no rule book; you just have to do it, and do it with gusto.

I re­alised that many of my lead­er­ship skills were de­vel­oped in­stinc­tively and through watch­ing oth­ers. But in­stinct can only take you so far.

Lead­erSurf helped ce­ment some of that in­stinct with theory and anal­y­sis. I learnt vary­ing lead­er­ship styles, the dif­fer­ence be­tween lead­ing and man­ag­ing and fun­da­men­tals about con­flict res­o­lu­tion.

I walked out with prac­ti­cal tools and a deeper layer of con­scious­ness about what I do.

Com­pa­nies that in­vest in their peo­ple are com­pa­nies that are fu­ture-fit. I re­spect my lead­ers for grow­ing their peo­ple and for do­ing it in a way that is true to ad­ver­tis­ing – find­ing a cre­ative an­gle.

This was a cre­ative course about lead­er­ship and ev­ery­thing about it made the learn­ing ex­hil­a­rat­ing.

Apart from the class­room se­ries, the ocean pro­vided an­other kind of school­ing. As a first-time surfer, here are some things I learnt:

● It’s eas­ier for two peo­ple to carry two boards. When two peo­ple carry the boards, you each hold them at their nar­row ends. Of­ten, we be­gin a project by tack­ling the thick end of the wedge. It helps to start with the easy bits and to be­gin the jour­ney as a team;

● Study the ocean be­fore you get your feet wet. Be­fore you chan­nel Kelly Slater, you have to re­spect the ocean and un­der­stand the tides, cur­rent and wind. In ob­serv­ing the vast­ness of the ocean, you learn hu­mil­ity. It’s not about you. It’s about the peo­ple you’re lead­ing;

● Get used to fall­ing. To learn how to stand up on your board, you’re go­ing to fall re­peat­edly. A leader who doesn’t un­der­stand what fail­ure feels like can never truly ap­pre­ci­ate suc­cess. Ev­ery fall is a les­son in the art of re­silience and an op­por­tu­nity to meet your true char­ac­ter;


● Get out of the way. Once you ride the wave, there are more waves and surfers com­ing. An im­por­tant part of lead­ing is let­ting go. Get­ting out of the way of your teams is know­ing that you have to lib­er­ate as much as lead;

● Pad­dle, pad­dle, pad­dle. To gain mo­men­tum and catch the wave, you have to pad­dle with vigour. When lead­ing, you have to plunge into the hard work and get the tim­ing right. The op­por­tu­ni­ties are com­ing up fast, right be­hind you, and if you’re will­ing to en­gage those bi­ceps, the right one is all yours.

I’m close to turn­ing 40 and never thought I’d learn to surf. My big­gest les­son in all this: we’re ca­pa­ble of up­dat­ing our ways of think­ing. We de­cide our own lim­i­ta­tions. It’s time to ap­proach the im­pos­si­ble with a surfer men­tal­ity – just shred it, dude.

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