Transformative leadership: Stepping up by falling back

There are many ways to demonstrate leadership. Some lessons from a recent swim class.

Rashada Whitehead
Rashada Whitehead

Many people are surprised when I tell them this, but I can’t swim. And the reason I can’t swim isn’t because I wasn’t exposed at a young age. In fact, I had swimming every summer as a kid all through high school. As a mom, I’ve put effort into making sure my kids are great swimmers. The sole reason I can’t swim is because I am simply afraid to let go.

Another dilemma is that I love travel—specifically to warm climates surrounded by or near large bodies of water. There is no more tranquil place to be than next to an ocean, lake, or stream, connecting with nature as she does her thing.

So, what is the point of this? Like most people, I want to live my best life. Doing so often means we must embrace the things that make us most uncomfortable, and yes, even the things we fear. With that in mind, I recently registered for a swim class.

The first class was this week. I was all set with swimsuit, cap, and all the "gear" I needed to get going. I was glad the pool was warm because cold water only adds to my anxiety.

The coach let us know he’s been instructing at this location for more than 35 years. He’s seen it all – every mental and physical barrier you can describe. And, he’s seen people overcome their most deeply rooted challenges.

There are only seven of us registered, so we were able to quickly chat about why us grownups are registered for a class that most people have mastered by first grade. Of the seven, two were returning to build on what they knew, two couldn’t swim but were comfortable in water, and the other three, including me, were utterly shaken but proud we had made it to the pool.

The coach allowed us to get comfortable, practicing breathing, blowing bubbles, and whatever we needed to relax. I, being a notoriously curious person asked every question that came to mind, "Do you swim with your eyes open or closed?" and "About how long can the average person hold his breathe?"

After all the formalities, it was time for some real techniques. As if a supersonic wave was whispering in his ear, he turns to me and said, "Rashada, come over here for a moment," and signaled to the middle of the pool.

I let go of the wall reluctantly as he instructed me to put my hands by my side as a soldier would and simply fall back. "Trust me," he said. "I’m right here and I won’t let you fall."

In a split second, I had to decide if I was going to hold up the entire class because of my fear, or if I was going to fall back and trust that either I would float or the coach would hold me up. And this, in many ways, is what transformative leadership is.

In the PR world, we often believe asserting ourselves as the smartest, most strategic, or forthright is the apparent sign of leadership. But like my swimming exercise, I have found that the times I’ve been most challenged to solve a critical issue, make a high-level decision that affects a host of others beyond myself, or dig down to a place of complete discomfort because I know that’s where the best solution lives—It has required that I fall back and get out of my own way.

This could mean listening and allowing the insights of others to influence the outcome. It could mean resisting the temptation to fight a battle that has become more about being right than about being affective. Or, it could mean letting go the fear of falling and making a decision that I know is best for the greater good, no matter what happens.

As for my swim class, everyone else was standing against the wall silently watching. Whether rookie, novice, or scary cat, they all waited to see how I would handle the first lesson of the session.

I chose to let go and fall back. I floated for a short moment before I felt the coach’s hand holding me up. I briefly floated again – then I stood up. Boom! That’s it. I stood up.

The whole time, we were practicing in shallow water. As much as it seemed to be a big deal, it was only because of my fear that I had created this notion of a difficult and overwhelming experience. I realized it truly was as simple as relaxing, letting go, and falling back—because I could always choose to stand up. Letting go and falling back doesn’t mean you lose control. Instead it means you maintain a since of calm and harness your power through your intentions, choices, and actions.

There is a lot going on in this industry, which is indicative of all that is happening in the world. Struggling to maintain power and being heard and respected is the place we defer to most, for obvious reasons. But leaders for today and the future understand that being in the big chair or at the head of the table doesn’t mean you don’t have fears or vulnerabilities. It just means you embrace them from a point of strength to maintain objectivity and compassionate, yet transformative, resolve.

Rashada Whitehead is a professor, writer, and the president and chief transformation officer of KGBERRY, an organization that helps conscious companies navigate big changes. Connect with her here on Twitter.

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