Jason Byassee: Watch out for the waves

Rules for the beach can also apply to leadership: respect but don't fear the ocean, lean into what's coming, and there's always another wave.

My kids this summer mastered the beach for the first time. They waded out into the water and stood there while waves broke over them. And they didn’t always get knocked down.

“Knees bent!” I’d yell over the surf. “Lean in if there’s an especially big one. And remember the rule: There’s always another wave coming.”

That last part is especially key. If you’re under the water, about to come up, and you find yourself thinking, “Hmm, I wonder if there’s another wave coming,” the answer is always yes. If you forget that rule you’ll come up expecting to gulp a blast of fresh air and wind up instead with lungs full of saltwater. It tastes good on your lips, it feels good on your face at the end of the day, but you do not want that water in your larynx, trust me.

I watched this happen with my six year old. He went under water to look at a crab or whatever. He came up and smiled at me, a huge melt-your-parents’-heart sort of smile. He wasn’t looking at the mammoth wave coming behind him. I could see it, but I was too far away to warn him.

“Jack!”

And down he went. I watched his blond curls tumble as the wave spun him over like a towel in the dryer. He ran from the water sobbing.

“I hate the beach! I never want to come back!”

I explained to him what getting wiped out meant. In my family we call it “getting trashed.” “You’ve been trashed. You’re in. It’ll happen again. It’s even fun in a weird way. Just hold your breath and it’ll be fine.” He nodded, tearfully, and rejoined the ocean.

How do you teach children to respect and even love the ocean without terrifying them? If we told them the whole truth we’d tell them about riptides of the sort that drowned my brother’s guitar teacher in high school. But we shade the truth, just a little. When they ask where the sharks and the whales are, we assure them that they’re way out past the shrimp boats, beyond the horizon, past where we can even see. We know they can come closer. They just don’t very often. But we don’t share all that with small children. It’s the same with the ocean itself. It can be a dangerous place. Yet if you relax, if you ease in, if you respect the water, it will bear you up, it will sustain you, it will become a place of refuge.

It’s not a bad rule for leadership: There’s always another wave coming. You think you’ve gotten through the pile on your desk and then, bam! The trick is to be looking the right direction to see what’s coming. And be ready to bend your knees, lean in, and dive to the bottom if necessary. And when you get trashed to go back in and figure out how to avoid it better next time. But the whole point is that you’re in an ocean that’s wild, that you can’t control or master, and will sometimes slam you to the sand. Hold your breath and wait for it to pass.

And then beware. There’s another one coming. If you know with enough warning you can dive into it, or under it, or over it. But it’s coming.

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.