On a recent trip to California I ventured out to a place known as “surfer’s point.” The waves were more than 12 feet high and the undercurrent was strong. Looking up and down the coastline I counted nearly 100 surfers, young and old, testing their skills and courage in extraordinarily challenging and unpredictable conditions.

Challenging and unpredictable conditions – sound familiar? I’ve never caught a wave myself, but have observed and chatted with surfers on many occasions throughout my life. Here are five lessons they’ve taught me that apply well to when it comes to strategy development:

  1. Get in the Water. Smart strategy doesn’t just happen. It requires active and thoughtful collaboration between leaders and stakeholders. Remaining on the “shoreline” of inaction or indecision only guarantees the status quo. Getting in the water means exploring what’s at stake if things stay the same, how to rethink your organization’s future, and what’s the real end-game.
  2. Look Beyond the Current Wave. Leaders spend most of their time dealing with what’s happening now. In contrast, strategy means identifying trends that are likely to impact your organization in the future (economic, competitive, political, market, social, etc.). For example, asking: “What’s changing out there that makes it necessary for us to think about our organization’s future in new ways?”
  3. Accept Uncertainty.Go for Clarity. Like the ocean, the future is hard – if not impossible – to predict. Smart strategy should not attempt to guarantee certainty. Rather, it should provide clarity about purpose (our reason for existing), vision (inspiring plans for the future), and values (guiding principles). Clarity is akin to a good center of gravity – it makes it easier to improvise, especially when the environment is uncertain or volatile.
  4. Push the Limits. By definition, strategic vision represents a future that is different from the current state. But too often leaders cater to personal preferences and fears of those around them, avoiding goals that may cause discomfort or dissent. Smart strategists, like great surfers, are willing to reach beyond their comfort zone and fully commit to specific, intentional, bold actions. They understand the limits of “playing it safe” and inspire their team to stretch.

  5. Be Selective. Seasoned surfers are patient and discerning about the waves they choose to ride. Likewise, smart leaders know they can’t jump at every opportunity. They must choose well, knowing when to wait in the lull. The success of projects often hinges on saying “no” to other proposed endeavors.

Leaders who can navigate the waves of change with the mindset and agility of a surfer are an asset to any organization. What’s working for you these days when it comes to strategy development and execution?

Photo Credit: Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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