“Our boat is sinking! It’s sinking – sinking! F*****************CK!”
Adam is screaming. His face is turning an angry shade of red.
He’s running into the dive shop, yelling.
“Mooooove. We need to get it out. Now. For F**k’s sake! NOWWW!”
It’s absolute chaos.
What was supposed to be another peaceful day of diving down to Turtle Point off the coast of Gili Trawangan…has now turned into a crisis.
This moment changed how I looked at leadership. That’s what I want to talk about today.
When I heard Adam yelling, I was standing barefoot with my weight belt in hand, ready to dive. Now, our plans have changed. Another boat has arrived. This boat will first try and rescue the sinking boat. THEN – we will go off to dive.
The new change of plans – meant that I had a unique and front-row seat to the action. What follows is what I saw in the rescue mission.
It was like the scene from titanic. On a much smaller level.
As we get closer to the sinking boat, I get a better look. Adam is still screaming, only now his voice is distant as it is coming from the shore.
With every passing minute, the boat appears to be sinking deeper and deeper into the ocean. We see the entire body of the boat filled with water; snorkels, buckets, and equipment being tossed about helter-skelter in the rough current.
It turns out that the boat hadn’t been properly anchored. The waves were violent that morning. A particularly heavy wave compromised the already compromised boat.
So, by the time red-faced Adam noticed it – there was too much water in the boat.
Now, the boat is sinking, sinking, sinking.
The only option is to pull the boat out of the current and onto the shore.
Of course, this is easier said than done.
The boat keeps getting stuck in the bed of coral and rocks beneath it.
With each crashing wave adding insult to injury, the boat seems to be slowly sinking deeper and deeper into the ocean. It doesn’t look like we will be able to save it.
There are men everywhere.
Coming on paddleboards and kayaks… they get to the sinking boat. With snorkels on, they start collecting the different floats and other items which were on the boat. The other men are trying to lasso a rope between the two boats.
Every time, a connection seems to be secured – the attempt fails.
The current is just too strong, our boat too weak and the corals too heavy.
There’s a lot of talking and screaming about direction, pulling, and strategy.
All the while the boat is sinking, sinking, sinking. Adam is still screaming from the shore.
I have no idea what to do – so I keep silent.
Perfectly dry, I sat on the rescue boat… silently watching the men jumping from one boat into the ocean and swimming to another. I heard them screaming in coarse Bahasa Indonesian. I saw the captain of our boat move between extreme passion and frustration in an attempt to help.
There was nothing I could do to help but not get in their way. I have no idea what to do – so I keep silent. I’m transfixed. On our boat, a fellow diver, a large British man, isn’t silent. He has a lot of opinions on what needs to be done. He shares them with the captain of our boat and anyone else who will listen. I have no idea whether what he is saying makes any sense. So, I keep quiet.
Eventually, Adam arrives on a paddleboard. He begins the translation between English and Bahasa Indonesian on what the game plan is and should be.
Next to me, my diving buddy and friend Alejandra, is feeling anxiety. With every passing minute, her face is looking increasingly worried. She’s worried about the safety of these men, who we have all come to know as part of our tight COVID-19-Gili family. She is worried about the boat, whether it will be recovered and how much it will cost Adam. She is worried by the waves.
After a while, she’s had enough of the worry.
Alejandra jumps off the boat and swims to shore.
I stayed on.
Finally, another boat arrives. With more rope and turbo power.
With a few accelerations and tugs, the sinking boat finally begins to move. I hear cheers from the shore where it seems like the entire island has gathered, ready for the moment when they will have to manually pull it to shore and begin the process of draining the water from the boat.
Now that the more powerful boat has arrived, we leave the scene to go diving.
Down in the ocean, we go to Turtle Point.
At the pinnacle of this dive site, I swim above turtles whose shells have diameters longer than the height of me. They’re calm, sleeping, and munching. Giving me lazy side-eye. It is incredible. I’m immersed.
Down in the depths of the ocean, I begin to reflect on this moment. I’m confused – I’ve witnessed a terrific chaotic moment. What’s the takeaway?
I found myself pondering the lesson for the day. The one thing that seemed to be coming to my mind over and over again – was just how I lacked the skills to respond to this situation. Adam was the one who spotted the sinking boat, he was the one yelling and going pink in the face. Did he display good leadership skills?
I wrote an entire article on these tired tropes of supposed ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ leadership traits. I made the argument that essentially, in some situations, the screaming, the brute force, and action-bias…is what is needed.
And then, I spoke to Fiona Proctor – whose entire body of work is based on leadership. So of course – she challenged my viewpoint. Here are my thoughts as directly influenced by our conversation on this article.
Too often, our model of leadership recognizes those who are screaming the loudest to be the leaders of the situation.
Was Adam’s screaming helpful?
Sure – the screaming was a catalyst for action.
But beyond the initial moment, his screaming raised everybody’s stress. Our nervous systems were extremely activated. Potentially people’s ability to respond was compromised by this heightened sense of urgency he created by constantly yelling.
For the longest time, he was on the shore screaming in a state of agitation. And I get it. When I was on the shore it really did seem like there was a right way to recover the boat. And these people aren’t doing it. It seemed so simple. Just lasso the sinking boat to the rescue boat…come to shore already!
Although, once I got closer to the action…I realised this was completely FALSE. The current, the waves, the rocks and the size of the rescue boat complicated things.
But from the shore, Adam remained irate and arrogant. His arrogance wasn’t helpful or supportive to the process of responding to the crisis. He was supposedly giving them directions and getting exasperated about the lack of progress.
When my friend approached his wife and said – Why doesn’t he get a megaphone to communicate with the people in the water?
His wife quietly responded: ‘He doesn’t know what to do, either.’
As Fiona Proctor saw it, there were several other players in this situation who displayed real leadership.
Leadership is the men who are actually in the water.
The ones who are jumping in the fierce current to swim between the boats. To speak to each other.
Leadership is the men with the more powerful boat who came to help.
Leadership is my dive buddy, Alejandra, who willingly jumped off the boat – knowing her nervousness did little to help.
Leadership is me keeping my distance from the moment instead of creating more confusion by ‘trying to help’. Leadership isn’t the spectator diver who was providing an unhelpful running commentary on how he would handle the situation differently.
Leadership is collaboration:
From the shore, it looked like the men in the water were in a state of chaotic failure.
Once I was on the boat, I understood the complexity of the situation. No matter how many times we were repositioning the boat and the rope – the current was too strong, the coral too dense and our boat was too small. It took a lot of trial and error to make progress.
Adam needed to come out into the ocean as soon as possible. He needed to hear the other perspectives and acknowledge the others had a plan.
Instead, he stood on the shore, screaming and issuing directions. The same power differential which existed on land where he was the manager of the dive shop was being played out in the water.
Who am I, to even be writing about this instance?
In writing this article, I was hesitant to share my thoughts on this.
What do I know about leadership through a crisis? What do I know about boats capsizing and the ways of the ocean? What do I know about reacting in moments when there are heightened emotions and tension?
And then I remembered my time working as a FrontPage Editor for Yahoo Middle East.
Back in 2013 – when people still visited news websites, it was crucial to put up a breaking news strap at the top of the page when something important happened. This was one of my jobs. I was assessed by how quickly I was able to break the news.
My quarterly reviews included statements like: “Broke news about the major earthquake in the Philippines within 3 seconds of news dropping”.
It was a matter of seconds.
It seems silly to me now, but it was my job and I eventually got good at it.
The thing about breaking news is that you don’t know when it is going to happen AND it is all about being prepared.
When news breaks, the energy in the newsroom is ELECTRIC.
Someone hears something, someone else is fact-checking and someone else is having an intensely loud and emotional reaction to it.
What is needed more than anything else is to stay calm, focussed, and open.
My role – was to be the person who was quiet, steady, and kept a cool head. With precision and certainty, I had to listen carefully, do a little research, and type out a brief but comprehensive typo-free strap.
While I had never really thought of this skill of breaking news as an act of leadership, I’m now beginning to think otherwise. I used to dismiss it as grunt work – I’m the one who breaks the news. But now, within this larger context of the sinking boat…I’m reconsidering my steadiness.
Yes, the ability to stay focussed, calm, and act fast with precision – is leadership…even though you are the quietest person in the room.
Something interesting has happened to me – now that I can see my act of leadership, I begin to see it more and more around me.
So – I want to leave you with this larger question around quiet leadership.
How many ways are we still looking at the one who is yelling the loudest to be the authoritative figure?
How would a crisis look like if we saw the ones who are in the water as leaders?
How would our understanding of leadership SHIFT – if we began to recontextualize ourselves as leaders even when the mainstream narrative doesn’t celebrate us because we aren’t screaming the loudest?