Water Works: Leadership Lessons from Diana

As you plan your next marketing program rollout, product launch, or team initiative, you have two choices. You can determine whether you’re going to stay on the shore and lament the water conditions, or dive in and see how far you can go. Which will you choose? Some inspiration from Diana Nyad.

It was 1978, and her first attempt to swim from Havana to Florida failed. Over the ensuing decades, battles with jellyfish, salt water-induced skin swelling, sharks, rain squalls, and sunburn remained her enemy after four painful attempts.

Thankfully, those days are far behind Diana Nyad. Today, at age 64, Diana’s toes touched the sandy shores of Key West.

Diana Nyad begins Havana swim 2013
photo credit: CBS Miami

Fifty-three hours and 110 miles earlier, some people had their doubts this would really happen. One of my mentors opined that she would fail. Another business colleague declared that her friends in Miami consider
Nyad “a little unstable to have wanted to continue to try so many times
after almost dying on the last attempt.”

These are the common responses when any leader–a high-performing athlete, CMO, business owner, or a technology visionary–declares some outrageous goal, and commits their waking moments to reaching it.They polarize groups. That’s their job. They build communities of raving fans as well as droves of doubters who stand on the shore.

As I see it, Diana’s thirty-five year project proves that she is a leader. She is shining a light on people who impose limits on their true potential. She also personifies the healing power of swimming, a sport I have enjoyed since I began swimming across Auntie Helen’s private lake in Winsted, Connecticut at age nine.

Diana and I first met in 1998 at a fundraiser in Los Angeles. My five minutes with her and Olympian Janet Evans still rank highly on my “most inspiring moments” list:

Diana Nyad Janet Evans and Lisa

Today, I think of Diana’s persistence and fighting spirit every time I prepare for my next long distance open water swim race. Her multi-decade commitment to completing the Havana to Florida swim reminds me that I have every reason to be in that chilly lake or rough ocean. The rewards of finishing these races are impossible to measure.

The simple joy of sprinting the final 400 meters of every race towards the shore, knowing that my husband is patiently waiting for me, is enough to keep me returning every year. He always welcomes me with my fleece-lined coat and a kiss. In most long distance events, I placed first in my age group. I’m not a nationally ranked swimmer or record breaker, nor do I plan to be. But I can still beat many women half my age in the 1500 and 3000-meter races. At age 52, I’m okay with that.

Start of 500M race

photo credit: Magnus Nirell. Elk Lake, Oregon, August 3, 2013

As you plan your next marketing program rollout, product launch, or team initiative, you have two choices. You can determine whether you’re going to stay on the shore and lament the water conditions, or dive in and see how far you can go. If you choose the latter, and it’s an unproven course, people will accuse you of being single-minded, irrational, and downright insane. Some people said the same thing about Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Sally Ride, Marissa Mayer, and Diana Nyad. They didn’t make history by hanging back, waiting for perfect conditions.

Do you want to put your toe in the water, or do you want to make a big splash?

copyright 2013, Lisa Nirell. All rights reserved.

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