Learning leadership skills can start in the most unexpected of places; of teaching a child to swim.
In last month’s article I explored how teaching kids to swim holds a lot of key lessons in leading my team. Here, I share another five lessons on leadership I've learnt in my two decades of teaching kids to swim.
6. Fun is the best motivator
This one is obvious; we all need to have fun! And kids especially so. Would you rather...
A; show up to a class where the teacher says, "ok kids, we're doing our freestyle arms under the board, and away you go". ?
B; A teacher guides you into a fun, imaginary place? Your arms become aeroplanes, hands the tail, we have to check that the passengers (your fingers) have their seatbelts on by shaking our hand, and then we land our plane. Sometimes if we're lucky, we're flying to Fiji! ?? The kids think we're completely silly, but they always have a smile on their face and they always swim better.
When faced with a challenge kids can talk themselves into giving up, feeling bored by the monotony of the black line, finding the teacher frustrating because it’s too hard. From going under the water for the first time, to swimming your first 25 metres of butterfly, we need a little story to get us through.
And the same goes for adults. I want my team to feel a sense of joy when they walk in the door, too. I admire Virgin CEO, Richard Branson's love for fun that makes his brand so approachable. I'm sure there's a place for corporate settings, but I don't think people thrive in that kind of environment. We're discovering that more and more.
If leaders are taking us on a journey to somewhere, it's more likely to be successful, if we place trust in our team and have a little – or a lot – of fun along the way!
7. Give space
When we're learning something new, we all need and appreciate space. Recently, I was doing some backing vocals for a local band. When I suddenly missed a note, the lead singer would turn around straight away and give me a dirty look. I thought, wow! Give me a chance to work it out!
We all need a safe space to work things out for ourselves. Failing leads to learning. I think it's very easy to forget to have patience with ourselves, and each other. Our culture still rewards productivity and the appearance of perfectionism. We need to give kids a chance to have a go, and do something poorly. Sometimes we need to let go and let them have a flop. In leadership, we need to not be afraid of the mistakes, too. If it means someone can learn from the experience, in their own time, they become stronger.
8. Control the chaos
I've learnt so much from Laurie Lawrence. He's had a big impact on many swim teachers in Australia, including myself. I've much respect for the way he's always in control of his classes. He has mastered a fine balance between authority and fun. Kids respond to his authority via the expectations he sets, yet they have fun, and love him at the same time.
When I see a new teacher with no control over their kids behaviour in the water, you know it's not a fun environment to be in. It's chaotic, disruptive, there's more tears and anxiety. Learning leadership skills can help you to be more firm with boundaries, showing you care, just as much as emphasising fun. I'm always aiming to find that balance in leadership with my team too.
9. Take responsibility
This one is quite the bug-bear for me. When kids aren't getting what you're teaching them, it's not their fault. It's yours! ? It's on us to communicate better. You need to meet them in their world and make it easier to understand. It's *always* the teachers fault.
Kids learn at different speeds and levels, but they should always learn something successfully. They should all be able to do basic things. When they're struggling to get it, I always look to the way the teacher is communicating.
The same can be said for leadership. If I'm not seeing the results I want, it's on me to find a way to communicate my needs in a way that is understandable.
10. Show you care
When I'm in the water teaching kids I make it a point to call kids by their name, praise them for something they did individually, point out something they can work on, tailor a story to their preference for Superman over Finding Nemo. By the end of the lesson, I want them to feel seen, understood and empowered. They know I care.
I've seen when teachers don't do this, and I wonder, do kids become better when we don't do these things? Do they feel invisible or like they don't matter? That's when I think back to my favourite teachers growing up. They were the ones who took a special interest in me, encouraged me, gave me feedback, made me feel seen. I want kids to have that same experience in their swimming lessons. With learning leadership skills I now know I need my team to feel that too – we all thrive when people care about us and want to see us improve.
What can building leadership skills propel you towards?
When I examine the idea of a being a leader, I ask myself, what am I leading people towards? I think about how swimming can make an impact on the life of a child.
It may not be glamorous, nor even valued by society, but it lights me up to think I help empower kids to overcome their fears, when they're often vulnerable, voiceless, powerless in the world they're growing up in.
I'm not a mum, I don't have kids, but I so value what children bring to the world. In a way, not having the opportunity to have children of my own and being the director of a place of learning, has led me to value what they bring to the world, even more so. We need their curiosity, keen sense of play, sensitivity, determination and big hearts. And it takes a community to raise them. There's a lot of things calling for our attention in the world, whether it be environmental, health, social or other issues. What good practice it is for kids to tap into their inner strength that learning to swim can be a conduit for.
It's easy for my team and I to get stuck in the day-to-day. Ultimately though, if we can help make a positive impact to a child's resiliency and capacity for joy and imagination, I feel like I'm leading with purpose, far beyond the life-saving skills of teaching kids to swim. Learning leadership skills can take you further, together.
Leading people to something that's bigger than any of us, to changing the world — even in some small and positive way – that's everything right there, isn't it?
Sea you in the water!