What Snorkeling Taught me about Selecting Leaders

Several years ago I spent ten days with my family vacationing in the Bahamas in a condo literally steps from the beach. The snorkeling was dazzling. I saw over two dozen varieties of fish, excluding the nurse sharks, dolphins, and a giant starfish I found. My experience with three specific fish reminded me that we leaders must keep certain principles in mind when we select other leaders to serve with us.

One day while on that vacation we took a powerboat trip to a private island in the Exumas, a collection of islands in the Bahamas. The experience included feeding grapes to threatened iguanas and fish slivers to giant stingrays. The highlight was when the tour guides fed grouper carcasses to lemon sharks and reef sharks as we stood a mere ten feet away.

Schools of triangular-shaped silver fish about the size of saucers also swam a few feet from the shore and after our broiled grouper lunch, I decided to try an experiment. I put on my goggles, took two hotdog buns, and waded out into the water. I pinched off small bits of the bun and dropped them a foot in front of me while I was under water. A feeding frenzy ensued reminiscent of a piranhas’ attack.

As long as I gave these fish hotdog buns, they stuck around. But once I ran out, they scattered. Here’s the principle I learned from these fish.

1. Shy away from prospective leaders who just want a piece of you. These people are mostly takers.

I often snorkeled in a reef about two hundred yards east of the beach in front of our condo. One day as I swam there the reef shelf suddenly dropped from a depth of four feet to over ten feet into a horseshoe-shaped mini-lagoon. I looked to my left and saw the most beautiful fish I had ever seen, a fish about a foot long with huge feather-like fins. Unlike most fish when I dove down toward it, this one wasn’t frightened. For ten minutes I snorkeled about two feet away from this magnificent fish.

When I returned to the condo I described the fish to my daughter and she exclaimed, “Dad, I think that fish was a lionfish. It’s poisonous!” I responded, “No, it couldn’t be.” I then googled ‘lionfish’ and the picture in Wikipedia included this caption: The lionfish’s attack posture. That posture was the one the fish took when I was snorkeling. As I read further, I learned that if you touched one of its spines you’d experience severe headaches, vomiting, and difficulty breathing. If you didn’t get immediate emergency medical attention you could die. Apparently the lionfish was waiting for me to get close so he could sting me.

I had been so enthralled with the fish’s beauty that I almost put myself in a dangerous situation because I didn’t know enough about the species. Here’s the second principle I learned from the lion fish.

2. Carefully vet those who dazzle you with the first impression they make on you. First impressions can deceive.

Call me stupid, but the next day I went to the same reef hoping to see the lionfish again. This time I wanted a picture, from a safe distance though. It wasn’t there, but as I floated I noticed a piece of seaweed about the size of a large pencil carpenters use to mark wood. For some reason I kept looking at it and as my eyes focused on this floating ‘seaweed’ I realized it was actually a fish. From my elementary school days I remember seeing a picture of this species called a ‘trumpet fish,’ a relative of the seahorse.

I almost missed seeing this unique fish because it blended so well into the reef’s background. Here’s the third leadership selection principle I learned from my fish experience.

3. Your best leaders may be right in front of you and yet you don’t notice them. Often they won’t stand out in a crowd (much like how David didn’t ‘look’ like a king when God told Samuel to pick him).

So, the next time you face a leadership selection decision, consider these three principles.

What principles have helped you make good leader selections?

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