The Waterline

This insightful video explores the critical distinction between the visible aspects of leadership, referred to as “above the waterline,” and the often overlooked realm beneath it. The author emphasizes that while operational elements, such as budgets and plans, are essential, true leadership extends to the intricate dynamics below the surface. Drawing parallels with the analogy of swimming, the video underscores the necessity for leaders to navigate both the tangible and intangible aspects effectively. It contends that success lies in mastering the “tough stuff” – the complex human interactions, relationships, and emotions. Ultimately, the video advocates for leaders who are adept at porpoising between these two interconnected worlds.


The waterline is where great leaders focus. I’ve worked with many leaders over the years, and one thing has come back repeatedly. It’s a particular talent or capability or way they have of seeing the world, and I want to share it with you. And it works like this. Of course, every leader has to focus on the operational world. This is where things are now. We need to have them be over there at some future time, either the end of the day, the week, the month, the quarter, or the year, the decade, whatever it is, we’re going from here to there, and we have to have a plan for getting there. So we have budgets, plans, benchmarks. We have all kinds of ways of tracking where we are. This is often called the hard stuff of organizational life. This is what you can see, touch, count, measure, the technology, the building, a lot of the real stuff that you can see. Now it’s what I call above the waterline. Why? Because there’s a waterline that exists that great leaders understand that not-so-great leaders seem to forget. Leaders that are not great. Leaders that are good managers. Leaders that are good managers are really good at this stuff. They’re really good at this. But what they don’t realize is that there’s also a world down here below the waterline, which is the world of human beings interacting or not interacting, departments, levels, units interacting with each other, relationships.

Are they productive or not? Where does trust, passion, loyalty, discretionary effort, all the stuff that organizations desperately need to be successful exist down here below the waterline, with the human beings working to get along? This is the human world. Now, this is a radical thing that I want to say. As far as I can tell, the budget, while it’s absolutely crucial, and the plan, while it’s absolutely crucial, don’t really accomplish anything. My friend who’s a general in the US Army, one of my high school buddies, Benny P. James Henry Binford Peay, the third, told me this: something that they learned in military planning is priceless. The plan itself is useless. You have to plan, but your plan only survives until initial contact with the enemy. Your budget has to be perfect, and it is perfect above the waterline until you hand it off to human beings. And then God only knows what’s going to happen. So above the waterline, you have this Newtonian world of predictability. The minute you hand that world over to human beings, it goes from the Newtonian world into the quantum field, where all you have now is probability. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. This is called the hard stuff. This is often called the soft stuff.

But actually no, it’s really. As my friend Bob Crosby says, this is really the tough stuff. Why? Because, he said the hard stuff is relatively easy. The soft stuff is really hard. So we like to call it the tough stuff. What does this mean? It means that both these worlds are occurring in your organization, in your team, in your life, in your relationships, simultaneously. Everything is happening. There’s a hard component and there’s a tough component. And so when I was in college, I swam the butterfly. This is not me. I wish I looked like this guy swimming the butterfly, but I swam the 200-meter butterfly and the 200-meter individual medley. And in the butterfly, you have to swim like a porpoise. You come up and down and up and down. You’ve probably seen it. Great leaders are not afraid to get wet. Leaders that are only concerned about management don’t like the water. They don’t want to go below the waterline. If you’re going to be a great leader, having a great organization, you’ve got to develop the courage and the capability of being as comfortable and as competent in swimming down here within the human world as you are of dealing with your Excel spreadsheets and your plans and your budgets, the secret to great leadership is being able to porpoise between these two worlds, learning to be masterful both above and especially below the waterline.


This insightful video delves into essential survival skills for navigating today’s workplace challenges. Covering skills seven to ten, it emphasizes the importance of developing courage to face challenges (symbolized by “tigers”), mastering cross-functional teamwork, adapting to rapid change, and finding purpose beyond routine tasks. The author encourages readers to view their work as contributing to a larger purpose, urging them to quit a mundane job and discover work that aligns with personal passions and makes a meaningful impact. With a focus on personal development, organizational growth, and effective teamwork, the video provides practical advice for thriving in the dynamic modern workplace.

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