Keep Your Knees Bent

Surfers say “If the wave swells, keep your knees bent and ride it.” They are talking about technique for being ready for the inevitable changes that happen in that environment. These athletes are known for performing at breakthrough levels! Surfing the waves at work: change, uncertainty, goals, complexity, politics, human dynamics – just addressing all these successfully can be a breakthrough. Maintaining openness and proactively looking for new situations and possibilities, asking questions and being curious, rather than always knowing the answer, is critical to being a breakthrough performer.

Is Knowledge From the Past Enough to Bring Us Breakthrough Performance in Our Future?

Relying on past knowledge and know-how can unknowingly produce complacency and inflexibility. Thinking ‘I know this’ or ‘I’ve got this handled’ can put an invisible ceiling on what is possible at best, and at worst, this way of thinking can cause serious professional problems! How can we stay sharp, alert and excited about the future?

Facing Unexpected Situations      

As an athlete, I frequently make connections between my sport and my work. I recently raced in an ocean triathlon (not my first). I approached the race-day from what I already knew as a seasoned triathlete: the race, the location, the time of year, my abilities. When I stepped outside the morning of the race, most of what I knew had to be discarded. What I knew from the past was an easy course, typical calm ocean conditions on an early summer morning. The problem: it was pouring rain! The calm waters turned into 10-foot swells with the buoys blowing up into the air! I had to slow down my thinking and ask: how do I need to swim and breathe and manage myself to be safe and finish what turned out to be a very dangerous swim!

Shifting Strategy

With the swim finished safely, I was on to the bike! The roads were slick and the wind was stiff! I had to adjust my strategy and ask myself: how can I optimize my strengths in these conditions? Turns on a bicycle in the heavy rain are chancy to say the least. I used a strategy to push myself on the few straight roads I had and gain speed there. I also resolved to make up lost time by being extra fast on the transitions between the bike and the run. Knowing where you can leverage your strengths is a good asset to have. I had never raced in such stormy weather, and much of it was an unknown to me. The last key for success was having the conditioning and skill to stay calm and execute! Regaining focus each time I was confronted with a new circumstance instead of getting caught up in the drama, was a strength I leveraged that day. I can’t say it was my fastest time, but I did break through these obstacles, and not only did I finish safely, I won my age group.

The Art of Executing In Today’s World

Executing today seems to begin and end with being open to the unknown. You, as a successful professional, are running a meeting or project with aplomb; and then you hit a ‘10-foot swell’ – a situation you never expected. How can you, ‘on a dime’, in the moment, adjust your plan to be effective. Leading takes focus, preparation, and the ability to regain your focus in a split second.

Can you ask questions that would allow for the best possible outcome while preparing for what is absolutely necessary? Are you willing to adjust your strategy and take a different tact to arrive at the desired outcome? Can you keep your knees bent, much like surfers do, use what you know, but also be open and ready for anything? Practicing this way prepares you to perform at breakthrough levels even when you are confronting the new and unknown.

Ashley Tappan co-founded and leads Fit to Lead, a program that helps businesswomen take on fitness, even doing triathlons, as a fulcrum for leadership development.

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