Paddle board leadership

On Mother’s Day 2020 I was given a paddle board. As someone who is not particularly confident in water, this may have seemed like a slightly ominous choice of gift. However, I absolutely love using it and the more I’ve spent time on it, the more I’ve been struck by how it is a perfect analogy of educational leadership. So what has paddle boarding taught me about leading a team?

To others it may look easy, but until you are there you don’t know

Before I had ever paddle-boarded, I watched others out gracefully gliding along the water and thought how simple it looked. ‘I have good balance,’ I thought to myself. ‘I could easily do that.’ Turns out its not as easy as it looks and there’s a bit more to it. Where to position your feet. What to look at when trying to stand up. Using your weight to help manoeuvre the board. We are oblivious to these as those paddle boarding usually make it look easy. I wonder how often this is the case in leadership? From the outside leadership can seem easy. Like an iceberg, good leaders bear the weight of their team but often present themselves professionally to avoid showing the full extent of the pressure. Perhaps others wonder what leaders do with themselves all day if they don’t have a huge teaching commitment. Maybe team members question why decisions can’t be made more quickly. Or maybe we still suffer from a culture in which leaders don’t always appear to get their hands dirty. All of these might contribute to the thinking that leadership ‘looks easy’ or that ‘’anyone can do it.’ However just as I discovered with paddle boarding, it’s all very well looking in from the outside, but as Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘man in the arena’ speech reminds us…

Context is key

I wouldn’t just launch my paddle board into any open water without surveying it first. It’s important to know the situation you are going in to. What temperature is it? Where are the rocks? Are there any currents? What about the tide? Water is highly changeable. No two experiences of open water are the same. It’s important to assess each new opportunity in a way which takes into account the unique challenges and context of the environment, even if you’ve paddled there before. How similar this is to leading a team? It would be foolish to think that the initiative you are keen to introduce will work because you’ve seen it work elsewhere. But it’s important to remember the uniqueness of each educational setting – the individual staff, the learners, the history, the community, the learning environment – each has their own set of values, motivations and boundaries. Taking time to know your context is absolutely vital to ensure the best fit for your setting. A buy product of this is that even if the initiative does not go to plan, the trust which you build in your leadership during that initial period will help to achieve buy-in and drive within the team to work together to implement.

Stand up leadership

Pushing out the paddle board into the water and getting deep enough to stand. Feeling the water support you as you glide on your knees out from the shallows. From kneeling to standing takes bravery, confidence, determination and a belief that you can do it. That moment when you focus on the horizon in the distance and put your balance to the test. It’s all very familiar to the emotions we often feel as leaders. Can I do this? Will I be ok? Am I brave enough? Do I have the strength? From those initial first footsteps into leadership, to becoming more confident in your abilities but still doubting yourself. It’s about being brave. It’s about believing in yourself. It’s about a strong focus on where you want to go ahead but cautiously and carefully inspiring your team to the point where they want to travel with you.

Where the wind blows

This morning I spent a considerable amount of time looking at wind forecasts to predict what time of day might be best to go out on my paddle board. The wind is a big factor in this sport. The same wind speed can create very different conditions depending on your direction of travel. It can make things much easier for you in one direction yet on the return it can blow against you and make things really hard work. Similarly, in leadership we will encounter moments which guide us towards the best way forward and people within teams who make life easier. However, sometimes we may be leading within blowy conditions; feeling like we are working against the wind and being battered head-on. This might also be apparent in individual situations which involve being in the middle of two demanding and opposing sides of the same team. Again a clear understanding of where we are going and why, the humility to change direction if required and the ability to fall down sometimes and admit defeat are all hugely useful in both paddle boarding and leadership alike.


No matter how good a paddle boarder you are, you are still at the mercy of the weather and the water. Tides, currents, and changing weather can, very quickly, wreak havoc on even the most experienced water sports enthusiast. We have no control over these elements, and if they suddenly decide to turn, the only thing we can do is react skilfully. The same is true in leadership. Yes there are many things within our control as leaders. But it would be foolish to think we can control everything. Much of the time we are dealing with humans – pupils and staff, parents and the community – and we have very little control over them. Other things thrown at us which are completely out-with our control. What good leaders demonstrate consistently, is the expert ability to control their own response to others and situations. Our reaction to difficulties and challenges mark out the type of leader we are.

It’s all about Balance

You’ve mastered the standing up. Now to stay up and make some progress. In paddle boarding, and leadership, this all about balance. Your strength and experience will only take you so far. Physically, on the water and metaphorically in leadership. Balance is key. Being able to stay professional and human. Being gentle and strong. Caring personally, and challenging directly. Working hard but knowing when to rest. All of these require careful balance.

Falling gracefully

And without our doubt, you will fall in. You’ll reach your paddle too far, lean over much, take your eyes off the horizon or a wave will catch you off guard. Before you know it you are knocked for six, winded and underwater. In fact, you should attempt to fall in early on so as you know how to recover and get back on to your board again. And the same goes for leadership. There will be days where you are caught off guard. Times when you lose focus on where you are going. Weeks when tiredness from too much paddling into the wind finally gets you. It’s ok to fall. It’s good to fall. Sometimes a refreshing dip is what we need to clear our heads and realign our vision. It’s the getting back up again which is the most important part. It’s hard to heave your bodyweight onto the board, especially if there are others watching as you attempt to get back on as gracefully as you can. But that’s where the learning happens. It’s where the character building, the strength and the resilience which I’ve seen in successful leaders comes from.

I hope to get out on my paddle board again this week. Any excuse to develop my leadership! Have a great week everyone.

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