Real Leaders

Why Business Is Like Surfing

“I’ve decided business is like surfing. There needs to be a wave underneath us. We can’t do all the pedaling!” I joked over Skype to one of our partners in Holland last week. The hardest part of building new business models may be exactly this: knowing which waves to surf and which ones to stay away from. Because business, and life, are like a huge, turbulent ocean. It can carry you to success. Or it can drown you to death. At any given moment.

Many savvy business leaders rely on their instinct. Like old weathered sailors, they smell something’s in the air before the rest of us do. They feel it. And they go for it. Ruthlessly. Tirelessly. Fearlessly. They can spot the wave that will carry their surfboards high up in the air for many miles to come. Statistics, smart consultants and industry experts may provide background information, but each CEO builds his own vision. Each man must choose his own wave. Even while knowing that choosing the wrong one may be the death of him and everything he’s built.

But how does a CEO build an accurate instinct about waves of opportunity? Where does he get the stable security needed to swoosh from one ocean crest to the next without falling over, losing balance and falling off his chosen salty curl? Not his mind, I can tell you. He gets it from his body. I interviewed my osteopath recently. Car mechanics can tell a lot about the way we drive by looking at the cars we drive: how our tires wear out, or where our brakes and motor lose effectiveness. Professionals who work with our bodies are no different. The way our bodies break can tell us a lot about the way we’re surfing the ripples of our profession. Alvaro Moran is a reputed osteopath in Madrid with twenty years of experience.

He is my first visit after I fall off my horse. Yes, his specialty is the musculoskeletal system. But it’s not only about bones, muscles and joints. It’s about what causes injuries to happen and what keeps them from healing. He has studied traditional Chinese medicine, homeopathy and Bach floral therapy. And I have to say he asks great questions about what’s going on with me by looking at where my body gets stuck.

So I asked Alvaro about the sample of patients who walk through his doors and what their bodies show about their biz surfing abilities. After a long strenuous disclaimer paragraph, which I promised to respect, he illustrated some basic ideas which –caution please!— can’t be considered scientific certainties. Yet they do provide some very interesting questions to think about.

Four key elements move our skeletal structure in response to the oceans of our lives: our feet, our knees, our hips and our neck. While our feet connect us to the ground and to our roots, knees flex to deal with ups and downs in life. Our hips allow us to advance and grow, whereas our necks turn to focus our eyes, ears and noses on what we wish to learn more about…told you this wasn’t science! It’s much more interesting than that 😉 If your feet often act up on you, then, you may want to ask yourself about what’s going on in your support structures: home life is a big one of course.

But so are shareholders, key knowledge holders in your organizations, support teams, anything and everything that you stand on to do business. Feet are used to support the body on the floor and to identify irregularities on the path we walk. Surfers need their feet to judge the strength and speed of the wave underneath them. And leaders who can’t trust their feet tend to operate more on theory than on reality because they are blind to the undercurrents that shape their industries.

Knees are about flexibility. Just as a surfer will absorb the bumps or shifting flows in the water by bending and stretching his knees, so too do leaders need to bend to higher powers: cash flows, market regulations, prices fixed by others, technological limitations…repetitive knee trouble may be pointing to a lack of flexibility. Do you fight more than you can realistically win? Do you make a business out of defying the establishment? Do you fail to bend your knee when your company needs you to? Hip problems relate to advancement and growth.

Hips are essential to weight shifts on a surfboard. Hanging back can sink the board into the water, slowing you down. While too much weight on the front can throw you right off the crest into a rolling, tumbling, even life-endangering tunnel of salty foam. Hip trouble raises questions about big decisions involving greater levels of responsibility. From having a new child to starting a new business, taking over our father’s company or launching a sophisticated new product.

Advancing in life requires complex shifts and adaptations which articulate through our hip joints. And finally the neck. Who doesn’t have neck trouble after forty? This power joint brings together upper back muscles and shoulders in coordination with the head. Not only does our neck determine what we look at and listen to. It also keeps our head stuck to our body, no matter how much it tries to fly off into excel projection paradise!

For a surfer, to look at where he’s going is essential. His entire body adapts instantly to the direction marked by his head and eyes. Neck tension is often related to combats between head and body that could never happen on a surfboard, but often take place in executives’ lives: CEOs that don’t want to look at their company’s problems, business owners who want to pull their companies faster along than they can go, investors who fall prey to fantasies of grandeur in their heads while denying their bodies’ insistent objections.

Necks that try to control their bodies into strict obedience quickly become painful. Our physical body is the most important business tool we possess. It is built to surf waves of uncertainty and swirls of chaos instinctively. When it breaks down it’s very often trying to tell us something critical about the way we surf our professional oceans. Forget external gurus, experts and advisors. Nobody knows your business like your body does. Listen to its advice. And it won’t have to get injured to make you listen anymore!