Leadership in the Deep End

by Alli Polin on December 6, 2013

Leadership Shines from the Deep End, Not the Sidelines

Each week, I dutifully take my kids to their swim lessons.  I get them from school, rush them through afternoon snack time, encourage them to throw on their swimsuits and off we go in the car to the hottest place on earth:  The Town Pool. Regardless if it’s the middle of the winter or the peak of summer they keep the indoor pool area HOT.  I’m pretty sure the official temperature is somewhere between the depths of hell and the surface temperature of the sun.

As soon as we arrive, my kids immediately jump in, relishing their free swim time before their lesson, while I sit on a chair nearby, sweltering.  My kids are decent swimmers so I usually bring a book or an iPad to keep me busy.  Every sixty seconds or so I look up to see where they are in the pool and what else is going on that may cause them harm.

Town kids rough-housing?  I’m up, off my chair, calling my children to lecture them to stay away.
Goggles off?  Mom’s up again, demanding they be put back on or they risk permanent red eyeballs.
Lesson time?  I stride with purpose waving wildly to get them to head to the lesson area.
Hot tub inappropriate?  Balls flying through the air?  Strange things happening near by… I’m up!  Sweating, annoyed and demanding that they take care and take cover at my direction.

Before you think I’m “that Mom” I also take tons of pictures while we’re there, watch approximately one million handstands, and wave and smile every time they look up at me.  I also joyfully watch their lessons encouraging them with each stroke they take.  Still, swim lessons are far from my favorite part of the week.  After an hour and a half at the pool I’m usually crabby, hungry and seriously ready to go.

This week, I decided to make another choice.  Instead of directing, observing and encouraging from the sidelines, I did something shocking… I got in the pool.

A Whole New Perspective

Battlefield Turned into a Playground

You know, that ball that I thought for sure would knock my child out, it didn’t look quite as dangerous from my new vantage point.  The view from IN the action vs ABOVE the action is radically different.  As leaders, and as parents, we need to take the time to see both sides and “get in the water” more often.  A sidelines-only view creates a lopsided response and oftentimes misses the mark.

Shifting Energy, Connecting Hearts

Usually, at the pool, time moves very, very slowly, as if we’ve been transported into another dimension.  This time, instead of focusing on me-me-me and the heat or them-them-them and every possible danger, WE emerged. Laughing, moving, engaging the time flew by and when we finally got out of the pool dripping wet we brought one other thing with us, the memory of our time together. Ready to make the connection at work?  It’s nearly impossible to be engaged in relationships while sitting the corner office – get up, move, shift your energy out of your usual space to meet people where they are.

A Look in the Mirror

From the pool I could see the adults at the surrounding tables watching their children and in them, I saw a reflection of myself.  They were hot, reading books, fanning themselves and waiting for time to pass.  I may not get int the pool every week but looking in the mirror taught me that I always have a choice – cheer more, worry less, wave more, iPad less, smile more, nitpick less, enjoy more.

Leaders: When was the last time you got in the water to swim with your team?  Make today the day you get off of your chair on the side of the pool and dive into the deep end.  

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

Carl December 6, 2013 at 6:51 am

Alli, wonderful story and metaphor – a team always has more respect for a leader who has ‘been in the trenches’ (or the pool in your case) 🙂
I could use some of that warmth right now as I watch the snow falling out my window.

Best regards,


Alli Polin December 6, 2013 at 7:27 am

Carl – It will be so hot here in a few weeks I think I’ll pass out when it’s pool time.

I agree, leaders that get in the action instead of always staying above it do earn the respect of the team. Would love to see more leaders leaping in the water.

Thanks so much!


Joy Guthrie December 6, 2013 at 9:10 am

A wonderful post Alli and a great lesson. Thanks so much for sharing!


Alli Polin December 6, 2013 at 9:22 am

Thank you, Joy! Your feedback means a lot to me.


Terri Klass December 6, 2013 at 9:24 am

Your kids are so lucky to have you for their mum, Alli because you care so much and take your job so seriously!

Loved your metaphor about getting in the pool for leaders! In a recent organization I am working with, people were getting fed up with emails not being answered. So the HR director starting getting the word out that if emails weren’t answered, one needs to walk across the hallway and have a face-to-face conversation. Everyone thought about it and decided, connecting that way could actually give them new insights and perspectives. And it did.

Thanks for your great stories!


Alli Polin December 6, 2013 at 10:08 am

Isn’t it incredible what happens when we stop complaining and trying to fix from the comfort of our chairs? Connection, collaboration, engagement! Love that story, Terri, and really appreciate that you shared it. Such a simple solution that has big impact.

Thank you!


Karen Jolly December 6, 2013 at 10:57 am

Thank you for sharing this Alli. What a difference a little shift in our perspective can make! We live in a world where we can sit and observe so often…making our comments from the sidelines and oh how easy it is to make comments from the sidelines! It is only when we dive in that we begin to understand ourselves and others. Thank you for the inspiration today to dive in – to change my perspective and to get involved. I’m thinking of my work this morning and how much deeper I could dive in today – there is nothing like getting all the way in! Thank you Alli!!


Alli Polin December 7, 2013 at 6:45 am

Love the idea that it’s important to not only get in the water but dive in deeper. We can all go deeper in our relationships, with our listening, and collaboration. It starts with a willingness to be in the pool…

You always brighten my day. Appreciate your energy and sharing!


Jon Mertz December 6, 2013 at 7:06 pm

So important to do, Alli. In working for a growth company, I am “in the pool” often, doing the work that needs to be done. Doing the work gives great perspective on what everyone on the team is going through to get the work done. However, it is important to “get out of the pool” too in order to plan ahead and see ahead. Often, I wish I had more “out of the pool” time! Thanks for a great perspective. Jon


Alli Polin December 7, 2013 at 6:39 am

Fantastic point, Jon! It really is a balance. When I was leading teams, hearing about what my team was facing and experiencing it first hand was an eyeopening experience for me. Still, too much distance to focus on strategy and vision minimizes engagement and trust with the team. Too much time in the pool yields little time for thinking or the small things that keep us on track. Wish there was a magic formula!

Thanks for adding your insight to the conversation!


Mike Henry Sr. December 7, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Alli, thanks for a great reminder. Not only is the leader changed, but everyone is changed when the leader gets in the pool. We want our leaders to be “us” and not “them.” Nothing does that like getting in the pool every now and again.

Thanks, Mike…


Alli Polin December 8, 2013 at 6:16 am

Well said, Mike! A great reminder that we’re all just human beings, doing our best and not important people and their peons…

Many thanks for your comment! Much appreciated!


Tom Rhodes December 7, 2013 at 11:03 pm

Another wonderful post. Engagement takes being engaged I like to say. Whether with your team at work or with your family at home, being part of the action is a totally different and rewarding experience.
Thanks for the great work.



Alli Polin December 8, 2013 at 6:19 am

Tom – You got it! Somehow, we don’t appreciate the currents and the splashes and all of the other things going on when we remain outside of the action. At work, with family or at play it feels good on all sides to be IN it.

Sincerely appreciate all of your insights! Many thanks for sharing here!


Brian Smith December 9, 2013 at 5:32 am

It’s good for a leader to jump in the pool now and again to show everyone else on your team that you still know how to do it. Sometimes you need to stay out of the pool so you can keep your eye on the bigger picture. I enjoyed your article Alli. I love your writing style.


Alli Polin December 9, 2013 at 6:29 am

I’m with you, Brian! It’s not all in… or all out. Really feels good to dive deep and then be able to pull back with a new appreciation and perspective on what happens “in the deep end.”

Really appreciate your comment! Thanks so much!


Karin Hurt December 9, 2013 at 7:39 am

This is a fantastic metaphor. You might enjoy this one I wrote a while back…http://letsgrowleaders.com/2012/08/08/everybody-into-the-pool-influencing-from-the-inside/


Alli Polin December 9, 2013 at 8:09 am

Oh my gosh, I knew I liked you! Great read, Karin! It’s a powerful metaphor and one that I hope more leaders will dive into 😉


LaRae Quy December 9, 2013 at 8:51 pm

Brilliant post, Alli!

This is such a powerful image: “The view from IN the action vs ABOVE the action is radically different. As leaders, and as parents, we need to take the time to see both sides and “get in the water” more often.”

Such a simple truth, and yet how often do we forget this simple lesson in life? Loved this article and will be sharing widely!


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