The tumultuous rapids of leadership — Photo by Tim Peterson on Unsplash

Unstoppable leadership

Adopting the philosophy of the Water Way

At the end of last year I took on the role of Head of Design at HM Land Registry, and now I’m about 3 months in I wanted to take some time to reflect on that time. I’d started remotely, during a global pandemic, whilst homeschooling and feeling fairly fatigued after a year of on-and-off lockdown and the low level stresses associated with that. During that time, I’d serendipitously picked up a copy of Shannon Lee’s “Be water, my friend: The true teachings of Bruce Lee”. Shannon is Bruce Lee’s daughter, and her book talks about her fathers life, focussing on his philosophical teachings rather than his martial arts prowess and achievements.

Bruce Lee — photo courtesy of Wikipedia

He was a life-long student of the world, documenting in meticulous detail his thoughts, beliefs, activities, and aspirations each day. Bruce wrote about many of these situations and his thoughts on his life philosophy, many using the analogy of water as a way of being.

As I read more I realised that I saw a lot of my personality traits mirrored the way she talked about her father — he was impulsive, quick to action and prone to frustration if he couldn’t do something immediately.

I’m passionate and ambitious, which are a good thing in the right contexts — but they can also lead to being impatient and forceful, not wanting to wait around for things to change.

Throughout his tragically short life, he tried to counter these similar traits of his with his “water way” — I’d like to share how I have used these teachings to improve how I approach leadership and the work I do, to become an unstoppable force like water, to know where to find flexibility, tension, purpose, wholeness, and awareness in any situation. Hopefully this philosophy will be useful to you as well.

Be water, my friend

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend. — Bruce Lee

Bruce’s quote above is something you can muse on for a while, and it captures the essence of what being a leader is about — be adaptable, or “shapeless” to the challenges that are thrown at you. But it’s much deeper than that (pun completely intended!), there are many facets to this water analaogy that help us frame how we relate to our work and the people we work with — and how to become unstoppable like water.

Becoming an unstoppable leader

Water has no limitations, it is unstoppable. If it meets an obstacle it changes course and keeps going. It often uses “no way” as the way, it can carve canyons and through mountains over centuries without stopping if it has too. — Shannon Lee

I’ve used some of Shannon’s excellent headings from her book to frame how this philosophy has helped me in the in the first few months of my new role.

Be aware

Choosing to live life consciously, purposefully and intentionally

Photo by Sora Sagano on Unsplash

As leaders we need to be actively participating, rather than “just showing up”. This should translate as being involved and invested in not just the work, but the people doing the work too. I made a concious effort to meet every single person in the new design practice, and to understand their individual situation, challenges and hopes for the future. It’s really easy to just occupy some “physical space”, it’s much harder to engage with that space and look beyond.

Being an aware leader:

  • Participate — talk to people, understand the things they are working on, listen to what is said, and also what’s not said.
  • Be available for people to reach you, to trust you, and bounce their thoughts and feelings around with you.
  • Avoid complacency and not paying attention — as leaders we are scrutinised more than we realise by both our team and peers.
  • Don’t become “stopped” or blocked, water always finds a way, no matter how long it takes. Sometimes you have to take a problem, and look at it slightly differently to make progress. Or maybe you need to redefine the problem, or what progress looks like itself?
  • Spot others who are disengaged, or “on” all the time. How “aware” are the others you lead? Is there a problem with people “just showing up”, but not necessarily being engaged? Why is that?
  • You don’t have to always be on — doing so would burn you out. The water way acknowledges that what is more important is that you are aware and focussed for when you are on.
  • Be aware of when you need to be off — being off is an investment you are making in yourself, and therefore to the quality of leadership you can provide. Sometimes you need to know when to come up for air when the water is crashing around you.

Be pliable

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man” Heraclitus, Greek philosopher.

Photo by Jeffrey Workman on Unsplash

Every leader reading this will nod along at the above quote. No two days in my new role have been the same, and a certain amount of pliability is required to switch between contexts on an hourly (or minutes!) basis and still provide value as a leader. Every person is different and requires being treated as individuals, and you need to be able to be present with them and adaptable to whatever is thrown at you.

Being a pliable leader:

  • Remain responsive and centred to what your team needs from you. Do you keep a “thermometer” of how the people you lead are collectively and individually?
  • Recognise that “one size does not fit all” — people are different in their own unique ways, what works for one person, will not work for everyone.
  • Like the quote about becoming the teapot, or the cup — how do you transfer yourself from one situation to the next? How do you adapt?
  • Understand that, like water, life is always changing. Teams change, people come and go, projects spin up, down and change course. If you try to control everything all at once you will end up frustrated and burnt out. Life is perpetual movement, and you need to work with that flow, not against it.

Have appropriate tension

The fluidity of water versus the tension it can hold is an interesting paradox. We think of “tension” as a negative thing, but it’s a necessary component to aliveness

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Tension is a funny one — like the quote above we can be fooled into thinking tension is something to avoid, that we should strive for harmony and peace. But that is to fundamentally misunderstand the meaning of the word “tension”. In Bruce’s philosophy, he talks about how in a fight you need to “not get caught with your weight on your heels”, as you are setting yourself up to take an easy beating. You’ll get caught unawares. Appropriate tension is about being ready, but not too ready. Too ready means you’re laser focussed on one thing, potentially missing everything else going on around you. Little focus means everything is underserved by you.

For me this is getting the tension wrong for predictions or planning, and working at the extremes for each — for example “i’ve set this day up to be a quiet one, and there will be no interuptions or anything for me to do other than this one thing I want to spend doing”. By striving for the right balance of tension between focus and unfocussed, I need to acknowledge there will be a certain amount of time I can block out, balanced with “wildcard time” — things that pop up and need to be dealt with. It’s about understanding the important tension between “knowing” and “not knowing” — clarity and ambiguity. Being able to navigate the ambiguity of many situations and still function as an effective leader is essential.

Finding the right tension as a leader:

  • Find the right balance between relaxation and tension so you can respond quickly and efficiently when you need to, without it coming as a surprise when you are “resting on your heels”.
  • Be as alive and responsive as water. It’s about finding a balance between too relaxed and checked out, and too alert and straining, or tense. Neither ends of those scales will benefit you or the people you work with.
  • Tension means you are engaged, without being overly focussed on one thing (or nothing).
  • Becoming comfortable with ambiguity, finding coping mechanisms for when clarity has not yet formed.

Be purposeful

When you discover yourself and can self actualise, like water it just flows naturally from you

Photo by Jonatan Lewczuk on Unsplash

Nobody wants a leader who doesn’t know who they are, or what they want. Being able to understand your core mission, and translate that into something others can follow and be part of is essential. As above, what you are and stand for should feel natural, it should flow like water for others to see. For me this is an unwavering and passionate belief that design in the public sector is essential, it’s not purely aesthetic, and can be used to uncover the right questions, then frame and solve problems found. It’s something I can articulate with passion and force, and stand by this message day in and day out.

Being a purposeful leader:

  • Understanding what your purpose in life is, and what legacy you will leave (when you move job, industry, or spiritual plane!)
  • What is the “end game” in the work or people you are leading — what are your plans leading too? Can you communicate that to the people you work with clearly?
  • Can you work backwards to achieve this plan? What are the steps that will get you there, and how long will it take? Who’s help will you need? I’m a big fan of working backwards, mapping out the strategic steps and actions needed to reach the goal.
  • Emotions as a leader are important — What you do and who you are is not as important as how you express your purpose to others.
  • How is your purpose being expressed through what you do and say? How is it being interpreted?
  • Make your insides match your outsides — can you step back and take a personal inventory of how you act and speak? What’s coming across about your purpose in them?
  • Make time for reflection — this is an essential leadership practice to remain focussed and course correct where needed.

Be whole

Water can be gentle and powerful, it can trickle and also crash with great force. We have a tendency to separate things into distinct parts to understand them, for example, “hot or cold”, and “beautiful or ugly”. But it is the whole that matters. With temperature, the extremes are undesirable, somewhere in the middle is more comfortable. And we should value the whole experience over seeing just the polar opposites of beautiful or ugly.

Photo by dirk von loen-wagner on Unsplash

A large part of working with people as a leader is to understand the nuance of situations put in front of you. It is never black and white, and usually you are just given a portion of a particular scenario to work with. The infamous stat of “as a leader you only ever see 9% of what is going on” is absolutely true. This means becoming adept at listening and looking for tell tale signs and clues to the other 91% of the iceburg submerged under the water. In my new role, being “whole” has meant accepting that I can’t know everything or nothing. I’m not good or bad at my job. It’s a continuum that will change over time, and seeing the timeline as a whole as well as looking at specific instances in time. It’s about celebrating the little wins that are fulfilling and working towards a greater whole of understanding, and understanding this in others too; seeing others as a whole, and not the selected/chosen parts I’m seeing on video calls each day.

For leaders to see and be whole:

  • Strive to see the whole situation, not just the parts (although they are useful to understand too, things don’t usually get solved in isolation). Our work is about complexity, and navigating the parts to understand that complex system we find ourselves in.
  • Like water, we can flow quickly or slowly — but it is knowing when and in which contexts to do so. It’s also worth knowing when you are working at these extremes, and finding ways to find a more sustainable middle ground.
  • Work hard whilst also being gentle with yourself in the process — trust that like any normal human rest and downtime are essential to being whole and giving your best.

Conclusion

Trust my compass, not my map.

I heard a great quote the other day, it was “trust my compass, not my map” — I’d bet that most leaders put all their efforts into defining the map, and by definition that means having all the answers. But having a good compass leads to a good map — it can’t be the other way around. For me, the philosophy of the Water Way is a great “compass” that I hope to keep referring back too over time.

For now I’ll leave you with some of the enigmatic Bruce Lee’s philosophical nuggets from an interview dubbed “The lost interview”, it’s a great watch and at the end you’ll see his famous “Be like water” quote:

“Running water never goes stale, you’ve just got to keep on flowing” — Bruce Lee

You can also get Shannon’s book here: Be water, my friend: The true teachings of Bruce Lee

If you enjoyed reading this, why not leave a comment, share it, or get in touch? I can usually be found on Twitter 👉 @laura_yarrow .

UX and tech geek. Observer of humans. Crisp connoisseur. Yarn fondler. Undercover Northerner.

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