Inspiring leadership examples are all around us. This week I had the chance to observe leadership in the face of danger and risk in a slightly unusual setting – the close encounter with a 4,8 meter long tiger shark at 25 meters’ depth off the island of Beqa, in Fiji.
The encounter was exhilarating. On earlier dives during the preceding week, we had observed a number of sharks of different species, including white-tips, nurse sharks and bull sharks. We were certainly alert – and the adrenalin was flowing freely – when a group of six bull sharks came to within five meters of us. Sharks normally don’t attack humans, of course, but bull sharks are certainly capable of severing a limb, and there have been a number of fatalities.
On this particular dive, the lone tiger shark came in while we were descending, and continued to circle us for 20 minutes. We descended to the bottom and placed ourselves with our backs to a coral wall in order to have some sense of where the shark was coming from. It seemed intensely inquisitive. I am no expert in shark psychology – and I was curious about the shark’s intent. Was it just inquisitive or did it also feel threatened? Or hungry? Might it attack? It certainly seemed useful to stay alert. Stefano, the marine biologist who led this dive, had recommended that we always keep eye contact with the shark. It was daunting to look into the eyes of this agile, elegant animal as it approached … especially at the point when it came straight at me and brushed past me within easy touching distance. I had to crouch on the bottom to avoid the shark bumping into me. This is not common shark behavior. It felt a bit too intimate and after just over 20 minutes, we surfaced. We had collected a truly memorable experience and the saying “quit while you’re ahead” seemed to apply.
So … that was fun. But there is a deeper leadership lesson here. What were the actions that Stefano performed that helped ensure a successful dive? There was real risk involved here. How did he orchestrate the behavior of a group of seven people that he has just met – some of whom had not encountered a shark before and who might freak out? As I reflect on the experience, five critical aspects stand out:
2: Cast vision
3: Script the critical moves
4: Be supportive
5: Move fast