Leadership Lessons from a Long Swim

By Stephen Bond

The race was scheduled last year for August 6, my birthday. I was turning 51.

To mark this event I chose to do something I’d never done before. I didn’t want to become a middle-aged “also ran.” So I entered the U.S. Masters Swimming Open Water competition at Donner Lake, near Truckee, California.

Donner Lake is one of the coldest lakes in the Sierras, and the race is 2.7 miles from one end to the other. Plus, Donner is more than 1,000 feet deep. All of those factors made the swim competition a giant-sized challenge for me!

The race ended up being one of the highlights of my year! Looking back, it also provided valuable leadership lessons.

Big Goals Inspire

I’ve swum to stay in shape for many years. But for a very long time I fell into a mindless routine swimming the same number of laps, at the same speed, the same number of days each week. It was a safe, comfortable pace. It was a good thing to be doing, but it didn’t challenge me.

Wow—did that ever change once I entered the Donner race! My motivation skyrocketed! I swam more laps; I pushed myself harder; I had more motivation than ever before. Why? Basically, it boiled down to setting a new goal: I wanted to survive a 2.7-mile swim across a freezing-cold lake!

Big goals inspire in a big way. The church I serve has made great strides during our 7-plus-year history. But at every stage of development we could have chosen to remain in a comfortable place. We faced the temptation to put things on cruise control many times: after we launched the church, after we added a second service, after we secured property, after we added a third service, after we occupied our first facility and, again, after we expanded our facilities.

Each time we overcame the temptation to coast by setting new goals.

Big goals inspire in a big way. Yet one of the major deterrents to setting new goals is fear.

That was true for me! I had heard about the Donner swim for several years. I had wanted to try it for a long time. But I never did because it scared me to death! I was afraid I might not finish. I was afraid of swimming in open water more than 1,000 feet deep. And, if I finished, I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough strength to preach that weekend.

One way I faced down my fear was to go public about entering the race. I told my friends at the pool. I told my family and nonswimming friends. I told my staff. I told enough people that it became more painful to back out of the race than it was to go ahead and swim it.

In a similar way going public with goals at church raises the bar of commitment. It throws down the gauntlet. It defines what new hill we are going to take for the cause of Christ. Going public also helps diffuse fear because energy-neutral conversations about “what should we do next?” become energy-producing conversations about “how do we get there from here?”

Make the Right Preparations

After deciding to swim the race I began a new workout. Instead of short sprints, I started swimming for distance. I began swimming a mile every workout to prepare myself for the 2.7-mile race. I also bought a new swimsuit and new goggles. To succeed in the race I knew I had to make the right preparations.

Making the right preparations is also a critical part of leadership. I trace most of my worst leadership decisions to moving too quickly and, thus, not making the proper preparations.

A key dimension to the spiritual gift of leadership is the ability to “see around the corner.” My wife tells me I live six months ahead of everybody else. I can’t explain it, but God has wired me to “see” the future for our ministry before it’s actually here.

Once this preferred future is affirmed by others in our leadership, we often plan how to get there through a process called future-perfect thinking. We start with the end in mind and work backward step-by-step, determining the best way to reach our goal.

The extensive preparations we made before moving into our expanded facilities are a good example. I told our staff that would be a leadership moment. Our congregation was expecting a seamless transition. We worked backward from our goal of zero hiccups and carefully charted each step necessary to accomplish this.

We’ve repeated this process every time we’ve added a new service or launched a major new initiative. Making the right preparations is vital for successful leadership.

Expect Opposition

The day before the race I mentioned it to someone at the pool. He said, “Well I’m glad you’ll be wearing a bright-colored swim cap so they can find your body at the bottom of the lake!” (Honestly, I think he was serious!) I couldn’t believe it!

Later that day I had lunch with a friend and mentioned the Donner swim. My friend told me about a guy who drowned in the lake a few weeks earlier due to hypothermia. And they didn’t recover his body for days!

Ouch! Talk about opposition!

I’ve seen the same thing at church. Any time we set out to achieve new goals, to plow fresh ground, to do things in an innovative way, there are always naysayers. Some people, even well-meaning people, are just wired to maintain the status quo. Change is difficult for them.

Leaders must be sensitive with these people, communicate as much as possible, listen carefully, but never allow these negative voices to carry the day. Because leadership takes us into the future, which is by definition not completely known, it requires courage.

When I face a leadership moment, I’ve found it’s helpful to expect some opposition. That doesn’t mean I’ve had a bad idea or that God is not in it. Nor does opposition mean that those people are against me. To the contrary, many times the objections raise legitimate issues that haven’t been fully thought through.

By listening carefully, we can actually improve the plans for advancement. Thus, leaders should expect opposition to new initiatives and then, if possible, leverage that opposition to improve the initiative as they continue to move ahead.

Success Begins in the Mind

The night before the swim I was overcome with fear . . . but I didn’t tell anyone. Not even my wife knew my inner turmoil. Late in the evening I finally was able to calm myself down. Instead of thinking about what might go wrong in the race, I began to imagine how it would feel to walk out of the lake on the opposite side. I pictured myself walking up the sandy shore and seeing my wife, Pam, smiling. I imagined people cheering for me. I thought about how wonderful finishing the race would feel. I kept those images in my mind as I drove to Donner and got ready to swim.

The hardest moment in the race came one-half mile out when I raised my head to get my bearings and fear struck hard. I had been told there would be safety boats available to help in case a swimmer had trouble. But there wasn’t a boat anywhere in sight!

I began to hyperventilate. I started thinking about the swimmer who drowned a few weeks earlier. I asked myself, Steve, what in the world are you doing? This is crazy! You’ll never make it!

In that desperate moment the images I had focused on the night before came to mind: finishing the race, seeing my wife’s smile, and hearing the people cheer as I walked up the opposite shore. So I regathered my courage, put my head down, began praying, and started swimming again. I didn’t pick my head up again for an hour. The whole time I just kept thinking about what it would feel like to actually finish the race.

When I finally walked up on the opposite shore it felt even better than I had imagined. A few weeks later it dawned on me that one reason I made it across Donner, despite my fears, was because I had finished the race—in my mind—long before I ever got into the water. If I had not seen myself finishing the race before I started, I’m not sure I would have made it across the lake.

I’ve discovered this important leadership principle: success begins first in the mind of the leader. To achieve new horizons, to break new ground, to take new territory for the kingdom of God requires a spiritual leader who can visualize the advancement in his or her mind long before it becomes reality. This is the faith quotient of spiritual leadership. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).

I’m reminded of this every time I see our new church facility perched on a hill overlooking the thousands of new homes being built in the valley below. I remember walking on the hill when it was raw dirt. What a difference a few years makes!

Kingdom advancement always begins first in the leader’s mind before it becomes a visible reality. One of the great joys of leadership is seeing these visions become realities.

We Have More Potential than We Realize

When I swam across Donner Lake it was by far the longest open-water swim I had ever made. The potential was always in me to make a long swim, but this was the first time I actually did it. Since completing the race I’ve reflected on how often I tend to put myself into a box that keeps me from achieving my potential.

I’ve seen others do this, too. I believe all of us have more amazing potential than we realize. By God’s grace, we can be more and we can do more than most of us ever imagine. God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

This is true for me personally, and it’s true for the ministry team I work with. Part of my role as a leader is to inspire myself and my teammates to expect more, dream more, believe more, trust more, and leverage more of our God-given potential to advance God’s purposes.

Some wise person said, our potential is God’s gift to us; what we do with it is our gift back to God. As a leader I want all of us on our team to fulfill our greatest potential for the glory of God!

As the church continues to advance, I wonder how many more visions God will inspire among its leaders. God has placed much more potential in us than most of us leverage. We have more potential than we realize. Because of this, I’m confident there are still many more “hills to climb” and many more “lakes to swim” to advance God’s kingdom. As a leader, those are the challenges that fuel my fire and keep me going!

Walking up the opposite beach at Donner, 2.7 miles from the starting line, is a moment etched in my mind forever. I made it! I finished the race! My wife never looked more beautiful! Part of what made the moment so special was I stepped way beyond my comfort zone and, that day, leveraged more of my potential than ever before. It felt awesome!

But I don’t intend to slow down. Now I’m thinking about entering the open water swim competition across the San Francisco Bay from Alcatraz Prison to the shore!


 

 

Stephen Bond is senior pastor with Summit Christian Church, Sparks, Nevada.

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