Finding Courage to Face Fear
A Leadership Lesson from the Surf

By Shaun Tomson

Surfers are experts at waiting – we spend most of our time in the water during a surf session waiting for a wave, thinking about surfing rather than actually doing so.  A ride is generally brief, no more than 20 seconds at your average surf break, a hundred-yard traverse from takeoff to kick out, and then a paddle-back to repeat the process. I’ll wait for my wave with a group of other surfers, all looking expectantly out towards the horizon for that next set, a grouping of waves formed by the agitation of wind across water, created by a storm hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

Surfers don’t wait in an ordered line like for a movie, but within a fluid grouping, each surfer changing position to be in the best spot to catch the best wave, that is expected to be coming, just over the horizon. Some surfers sit far out, waiting specifically for the bigger waves, while others sit closer in to the shore, able to pick off a wide variety of rides. A quick glance from shore and one just sees a grouping of people astride boards, bobbing in an undulating ocean. But there is a lot that is unseen – an entire world of riding and mostly patient thinking…

While waiting for that next wave, in the cool water, my legs moving gently beneath me as I sit astride my board, balancing me on the undulations of the ocean, the push and pull of the tide, the currents from the wind and the incoming swell forcing energy through the ocean, pushing in and out or perpendicular to the coast, I connect with an unseen rhythm, the current of the universe, and it flows through me, balancing my internal and external thoughts – my immediate thoughts of the next wave and what I have to do to catch it, and my internal thoughts of how I might ride the wave, and what I will do on that next ride.

I have always believed that no positive result or achievement happens randomly; success is a result of first introspection and visualization, and second – committed and directed will towards the result. As a surfer, I have spent tens of thousands of hours floating on the surface, under the curved blue dome of sky, gazing optimistically towards the horizon, looking for that which is unseen, trying to discern exactly where to catch the next wave, that band of energy, created from the friction between wind and water. I suppose all surfers are attuned to these invisible forces – in my homeland of South Africa I could taste the wind and discern subtle changes in barometric pressure – I could feel that surf was coming, confirmed by slight visible shifts in nature, by cloud patterns and dew fall. With this connectivity to nature comes a keen sense of self awareness, an innate sense of how one fits into the mosaic of the universe, an intuitive understanding of cause and effect, and effect and cause.

For the past two decades, I have explored the link between the basic principles of surfing, of commitment, courage, resilience, innovation, connectivity, humility and self-awareness, and how they relate to success in life and business. I have done this through books (Surfer’s Code and The Code), a film (Bustin’ Down the Door), and lectures at schools, universities and Fortune 500 companies.

Traditional leadership theory describes some of the most important aspects of leadership as being focus, emotional intelligence, resilience, vision, integrity and discipline. In the context of the turbulent change impacting modern organizations and the resultant volatile environment, I believe courage is a vital component of a successful leader’s skill set. Courage was a vital ingredient to my success as a pro surfer riding some of the world’s most dangerous waves. Courage is not revealed by introspection and careful thought, but by an absolute commitment to leaning forward into risk, an awareness of fear, but an all-energy push forward, with all resources towards the goal. Fear of failure is what often holds us back from success, and as a surfer I know that taking action, pushing forward with absolute commitment, is a way to find the courage we all possess and vaporize the fear that we all feel. Courage is the antidote to fear, and courage is a learned skill, just like leadership is a learned skill. We are not born with courage just like we are not born leaders. We learn about overcoming fear and finding courage not through thinking, but through commitment and ultimately through action.

The world’s deadliest wave is the Banzai Pipeline – even the name evokes apprehension. It was named this because it is as hollow as a pipe and because Japanese suicide pilots screamed Banzai as they roared into American ships in the Second World War. The wave requires intense concentration and absolute commitment as it rears up vertically, as it feels the sudden shallowing of the coral reef beneath the surface. Particularly dangerous waves at a handful of breaks around the world kill surfers each year. Mavericks in Northern California has killed a few, Teahupoo in Tahiti has also killed. However the Banzai Pipeline is a serial killer – it breaks 50 yards from the shore and on a clear sunlit day during a winter December in Hawaii, when the sea is gently ruffled by a delicate trade wind that luffs the top of the waves as they surge up on the reef, blowing mists of shimmery spray back towards the horizon, one doesn’t really see the unseen danger – the urgent suddenness of the lurching takeoff as one suddenly drives headfirst towards the dark coral, the wind that can momentarily blind you at the worst possible moment, the 50 other surfers in the water, all trying to get their wave, and then the violent rip tide that sweeps parallel to the beach at 5 knots, a torment of rough water driven in towards the beach, supercharged by the violence of the waves heading inwards, and then twisting sideways, constantly compressed and pushed by the relentless force of the swells coming in from a westerly direction and headed eastward.

Over the last 50 years Pipeline has become the benchmark of success, skill and courage – succeed at Pipeline and a surfer carries that aura of confidence with him all over the world, to any break he will surf. I was obsessed with Pipeline and as a 10-year-old, I had a picture above my bed – I would look at the picture and know that is where I would be challenged to my core.

There are three bands of reefs at the Banzai, each one closer in to the shore than the other, each one being revealed by progressively larger waves that sweep eastwards from storms generated in the vast Pacific. First reef is surfed up to 10 feet in height, and surfers sit just horizon-ward from the reef where the wave stands up and is able to be caught. While waiting at first reef, large waves will sometimes rear up on the second reef, and start to billow spray as they feel the resistance of the reef below.

The very largest waves break on the third reef, a legendary wave that is seldom surfed and seldom breaks. All the danger is on the first reef, where the coral is shallow and the wave often breaks irregularly as it passes over caves and canyons in the reef, places where surfers have been jammed in and then thrown out by the push and surge of the waves’ incoming power. When the waves are twelve to fifteen feet high a wave can miss the second and third reefs and focus all its energy onto the first reef where the irregular, misshapen coral may be only between three and six feet below the surface.

At the height of my professional surfing career I waited for a ride at the Banzai Pipeline, watching approaching swells gently throw off spray as they felt the resistance from the coral 20 feet beneath the surface. I sat astride my 7’ 10’’ long pointy-nosed surfboard, partially submerged beneath me, water up to waist, my legs dangling in the warm tropical water, gently balancing on the 18 ¾” wide and 3-inch-thick piece of polyurethane foam, encased in a layer of resin and fiberglass.

I lay down on the waxed surface of my board and paddled out towards the incoming swells that were capping up on the second reef. I liked to let the first couple go by, leaving them for the other surfers in the water, focusing my energy on catching the third or sometimes the fourth wave. I paddled over the first as others paddled for it, paddled over the second, and there was my wave, bending towards me as it came out of the West, an unseen band of energy generated by a storm many thousands of miles away. Towards my left was foreboding Kaena Point, a long headland dividing the North and West shores of Oahu, and to my right was a long stretch of golden beach stretching out towards Sunset Point. The northeast trade wind gently brushed my back, protected by a 3mm neoprene vest I always wore as protection against impact with the coral reef.  I paddled swiftly out towards the wave I wanted and swung around, and started to dig deeply towards shore, paddling in swift hand-over-hand strokes, trying for a brief moment to match the wave’s speed. The wave stood up vertically as it crested, enabling me to paddle over the edge of water, like descending a waterfall, using gravity to drop down the face. At fifteen feet, it was a large wave, not as big as I had surfed at other breaks like Waimea Bay, Sunset or Makaha, but as big as anything I had taken on at the Pipeline.

As a young boy, when surfing Pipeline for the first few times, I would feel the fear rising as I got closer to the point of no return, that moment when one paddles over the edge of the wave and takes off into the abyss, propelled forward by the wave’s energy and the force of gravity. One has to make a quick decision to forcefully paddle over the edge, knowing a mistake could mean an impact with the coral below, or stop absolutely, a raising of the white flag, but a chance to try again. The worst moment is when you get stuck in the valley of indecision, neither a yes nor a no, and the wave makes the decision, and metes out punishment for the failure to choose, in dreadful slow motion, tumbling a surfer over the falls, the worst type of wipeout, when one rides astride one’s board straight into the coral below. Pipeline is all about absolutely committed decisions and I learned early that riding the wave successfully was an apt metaphor for any risky endeavor in life – take the drop with absolute commitment.

On this wave, I made my descent with ease, confidently and comfortably anticipating the ride ahead. I had just won the World Surfing Championship, the youngest surfer ever to do so, and beneath my feet was a surfboard nicknamed the Pink Banana, a revolutionary and innovative piece of equipment with extreme rocker or curve (hence the name), that had enabled me to ride differently, changing the technique from one of stylish survival to powerful and radical maneuvering. I was young, strong and felt invincible.

The best waves at Pipeline come in from the west and I had taken off far inside or deeper than other surfers, because the wave looked so perfectly shaped. As I dropped down the face of the face I could see the wave changing quickly ahead of me as all the wave’s power started to focus onto the first reef, not just from the west, but also coming in towards me from the north. Imagine two waves coming towards each other and combining, exponentially increasing the force, speed and ferocity of the wave. As the wave felt the drag of the shallow reef it actually bent in towards me, making the wave stand up vertically and start to throw out over ahead of me. What I was going to have to do, to make the wave, was to complete my bottom turn at just the right time to sharply accelerate and change my direction, so I was no longer riding towards shore, but parallel to the beach. I jammed my turn at the perfect moment, mind and body perfectly coordinated, while the wave started to throw out ahead of me, forming an oval cylinder of water, a shimmery cavern fifteen feet high and fifteen feet wide, composed of tons of cascading water detonating on the coral below. Surfers now call this maneuver “backdooring” the section, driving into the tunnel of water created as wave breaks over on itself, from the wrong side, driving into the tube when the wave has already broken ahead of you. At this time, I was a master of this technique having spent years perfecting my art, but only when I was facing the wave. There are two types of surfer: regular footers like me and goofy footers – I ride with my left foot forward and goofies ride with their right foot forward. On waves called rights – those breaking from right to left, I face the wave. On lefts like the Banzai Pipeline I ride with my back to the wave, which at that time put me at somewhat of a disadvantage. With my back to the wave I just did not have the toe control over the inside rail of my board to keep me close to the wall, to stay inside the tube and not veer towards shore while the wave was breaking all around me. I had to rely on my heels, with none of the subtlety or balance of my toes. I was in a high-risk situation, balanced on that razor between success and failure, with my only way to do what had never been done. My dire situation forced me to instinctively innovate.

Riding inside the tube is a remarkable existential experience, a moment when life comes into focus, when the immediacy and urgency of the moment is tempered by a feeling of stillness, by an awareness that one is connected to the entire fabric of the universe, riding inside an absolutely silent and solitary tunnel of water, a sense that the past is slipping behind your shoulder, the present is beneath your feet, and the future is just ahead, out of reach, represented by a spinning, hypnotic, tumbling, tunnel of water, just ahead. When I surfed at my very best, when my mind, body and soul were in in perfect congruence, I actually felt I could curve the wave to my will. It wasn’t ego but respect and humility, a realization that I was part of the fabric of time and space, connected with the energy of the wave, my psychic energy, and the planet’s forces. I drove forward on this wave at the Banzai Pipeline speeding through the tube, back-dooring the massive section as the west and north swells converged. Ahead of me the wall seemed to stretch out for a hundred yards and the wave threw out over my head like a magnificent vaulted ceiling, a surfer’s Sistine chapel painted with the shimmers and glitters of water and sunlight.

I stood in a wide powerful stance while I raced forward, leaning into the wall of water curving around my body, my weight balanced on my heels, my back foot perpendicular to the stringer, the wooden center-strip that bisected the board along its length. My front foot was at a 45-degree angle to the stringer, the heel of my back foot pressing down on to the tail of the board pressing the rail into the wave face to maintain my angle close to the wall away from the breaking wave just inches away which would have smashed me into the coral. My front arm and fingers were pointed into an arrowhead, aiming straight ahead, and my back arm was cocked, elbow facing backward, fingers facing forward like in a karate stance, balanced and poised, channeling my chi forward.

After my bottom turn I was now at maximum speed, experiencing the most intimate moment a surfer has with the ocean, riding deep inside the tube, the wave unfolding ahead of me, a watery tunnel cascading in slow motion, like riding through dripping sculpted glass, the sun refracting though the watery curved ceiling, my feet on the board, inches above the water, accelerating across the surface. I was 30 feet back inside the wave, invisible to anyone watching from shore, riding on a cushion of foam that is formed when the wave breaks upon itself, and the impact forces turbulent foam up on to the wave – surfers call it riding the foamball, and it is a delicate yet forceful traverse across turbulent aerated water.

The wave sped up and so did I, and up ahead, perhaps twenty feet in front of me, I noticed the water was a sinister black for a 15-yard stretch, and I knew it was the black coral of death, craggy creases tangled together by lava flows and the slow buildup of coral over millennia. The tide was at its lowest, the protective covering of water over the reef at its shallowest and most dangerous. I knew I had to get across that coral river of Styx, I knew I had to cross the black water to live, and escape into the light, and the green water on the other side, gentle sand beneath the surface. This wave felt different to anything I had ridden before and I felt something different inside, a feeling I had never experienced before while riding a wave – primal fear – deep, dark, elemental dread. I had always banished fear once I caught a wave, it would vanish in the wind as I paddled over the edge of the wave. While riding I never felt fear, I simply focused on the wave itself, trying to surf as radically and smoothly as I could while the wave changed ahead of me. However, this wave was vastly different to anything I had ridden before, reality happening much slower, my consciousness experiencing the moment more acutely, trying to overwhelm my self-control, and absorbing my psychic energy. I knew deep in my being that a wipeout over the shallow reef, on a wave of this magnitude would be death, just like one knows that stepping in front of a car on the freeway is death too.

“O God, please don’t let me die” I pleaded as the huge wave broke around me while I was hurtling forward towards the deathly shallows. I have never asked for my life to be spared while riding a wave, never known such deep, despairing and lonely fear. I had to make it across that coral strip, the darkest fifteen yards I had ever seen.

Some have faith and some do not; some of us realize that order in the universe and the balanced perfection of nature did not arrive from the haphazard collision of particles in Brownian Motion. Yes, I made the plea to my God to not let me die, to the order in the universe. I had two choices facing me, to be completed in slowly spinning milliseconds. Bail out off the back of my board before I got to the shallow shoaling section of reef and perhaps survive, or risk everything and go for the light. With my faith, my internal force, and my surfboard I leaned forward, into the fear, leaned into the danger, and my board accelerated, and behind me the wave heaved and exploded, blasting out an explosive gasp of compressed air, and I was shot forward by the stinging spray, like being shot out of the barrel of the gun, crossing the deadly ribbon of black coral at maximum velocity, and then bursting out into the sunlight, to green water and soft sand, hearing my own internal anthem of valor and courage. My God was with me and my faith inspired me to lean forward into danger, lean forward into risk, lean forward to gain more speed, lean forward to cross the darkest of barriers, lean forward to have one of my greatest rides, and forever to know that to lean forward is to be the victor over fear.

Surfing is a metaphor for business and life, and the lessons one learns in the waves can be directly translated to the waves of business. Success in business is dependent on many tried and true factors including focus, discipline, teamwork, innovation, mindfulness, commitment, perseverance, integrity, and honor. What one doesn’t hear that much about is courage. To be a successful and inspirational leader in business one must be courageous, to be cognizant of the risk and the possibility of failure, but still to go forward, with strength, faith and absolute commitment. Courage is not an absence of fear, but a keen awareness of it, an absolute knowledge of it, and a domination of it, by moving towards it, by making a deliberate decision to lean in towards the fear, to break down the barrier, to cross the dark coral, or whatever that personally defined barrier limiting a personal breakthrough may be. Courage is also the realization that even when one leans in, with all one’s focus, and all one’s physical and psychic energy, that may not be enough; sometimes it takes a call to God for help, and by so doing, one finds that extra power to cross over the dark and into the light.

Check out Shaun Tomson’s Banzai Pipeline 1977 Video on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXsxTo6YAfI



Finding Courage to Face Fear, A Leadership Lesson from the Surf
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Finding Courage to Face Fear, A Leadership Lesson from the Surf
World Champion Surfer Shaun Tomson on “Finding Courage to Face Fear”- an in-depth analysis of leadership lessons learned from the surf