How to Be a Leader People Need: A Lesson in Scuba Diving, Snorkeling, and Skiing

There is a ‘common’ experience that most of us have encountered. Perhaps you have:

  • Had this done to you.
  • Done this to others.
  • Watched others do it to others.
  • Experienced a combination of the above.

What is this ‘common’ experience?

It’s not one experience per se; it’s actually a range of experiences – all of which stem from a similar cause.

See if any of these sound familiar:

  • Your boss is too controlling. He micromanages everything.
  • Your team leader says she’s “empowering you” – yet, you feel abandoned.
  • Your boss gives too much direction. He doesn’t do the work for you, but he certainly tells you how to do every little step. You feel as if there is no room for your own creativity or innovation.
  • Your team leader seems to have no interest in understanding what you do. It as if she thinks it is all beneath her.
  • Your boss fails to realize that you and your colleagues are capable of much more.
  • And the list goes on…

I contend that many of these experiences are caused by a leader who doesn’t know when to waterski, snorkel, or scuba dive. Understanding when to do these activities is key to be the leader your team members truly need.

Here’s what I mean by these terms:


The leader is aware of a given situation and helps if called upon. However, he isn’t overly involved. He stays connected via occasional reports from team members or passive monitoring of performance.


The leader is more involved in the work. She isn’t doing what others have been hired to do, but she is keeping her finger on the pulse of things. Frequent, more formalized reporting takes place.

Scuba Dive

The leader is very much involved in the execution of a task or project. He is working hand-in-hand with team members. He is well aware of how things are progressing, because he’s involved in doing the work with his people.

When is it appropriate to waterski, snorkel, or scuba dive?

The appropriate level of involvement for the leader should be based on an assessment of three critical areas. These areas help leaders see what people truly need.

1. Capabilities:

Effective leaders consider if the team (or individual team members) has done this type of work in the past and, if so, the results of the effort. These leaders identify if the work is commonplace or new & unique. They ultimately determine, often with the help of the team, how capable the team is to accomplish the task, project, etc.

2. Culture:

Great leaders look at the culture of the team. They assess if team members trust one another, share similar values, and act as a solidified unit versus individuals working from their own personal agendas.

3. Risk:

Successful leaders assess the risk of failing or succeeding on the task. They determine the impact of winning or losing. Perhaps they take into consideration the visibility of the effort within the broader organization.

By assessing these three areas, effective leaders determine if they should waterski, snorkel, or scuba dive.

Moreover, the truly great leaders, work with the team to assess each area and determine the right level of leader involvement!

Your turn…

  • Have there been times when you waterskied over situations you should have been more deeply involved in?
  • Have you donned your scuba mask when you would have served the team better by taking a less hands-on approach?

If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, or similar reflective inquires, consider doing this next time:

  1. Pause to assess capabilities, culture, and risk.
  2. Ask your team members for their perspective.
  3. Enter the ‘water’ at the appropriately level and adjust yourself if needed.


Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash