Swimming with Sharks: A Lesson In Crisis Management

I’m a runner and I like to compete in marathons and triathlons when time allows.  Triathlon training requires cross training on a bicycle, swimming and running.

One morning, I was running from my apartment along Collins Avenue in Miami.  It was not a particularly hot morning but severely muggy from an overnight rain, so it was zapping my energy and I was overheating like crazy.  I decided to run to the beach for a swim.

At the beach, I took off my shoes, socks and shirt and jumped in. I was practicing my breaststroke, breathing techniques and kicking. For me, exercise is my Zen – the place I go to get away from the everyday stresses. I often get lost in it and lose track of time.

Swimming with Sharks: A Lesson In Crisis Management image blacktip shark 300x1712This swimming experience was no exception. I looked up and saw that I was far, far away from the shore.  Thanks to the current, I had drifted farther than I had intended during this swim. Immediately, I realized I was going to have to push myself harder to get back to shore.

I wasn’t really sure of the depth of the water I was in, but it did seem ominously dark and still. I submersed myself and peered into the depths.  I was astonished to find I was completely surrounded by sharks — they were beside me, in front of me, behind me and below me.

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I came up for air.  I was starting to panic, slightly. In assessing the situation, I realized I didn’t know much – whether the sharks were hungry or aggressive. I can remember though, thinking to myself, ‘Well, Vaughn, you swam in here all casual like, swim back out the same way you came in.’ I kept myself calm and swam out of the dark swirl. I felt the sharks were close and curious, but they were avoiding me.

It took 20 minutes to swim back to shore against the strong current.  I collapsed on the beach, lying down for another 30 minutes with the waves crashing on to my legs.

Honestly, I wasn’t scared at that time, but rather physically exhausted. I gathered my belongings and proceeded back to my apartment.

While in a meeting later that day, my heart started to race, my hands started to shake uncontrollably.  My mind and body finally processed and was reacting to the fact that I could have died.  I had never been in a completely vulnerable position without some kind of protection.  It took at least 10 minutes to calm down.

I learned quite a bit on that day in May. Only now have I been able to articulate it and think through how I managed the situation.

Looking at it from a crisis management standpoint, I’ve broken it down into my key findings and how they can relate to business situations.

Control is an illusion.  While I found myself out there in that dark swirl, I realized I didn’t have control over my surroundings.  They could have torn me to pieces. Life is tenuous and the only control I had was over my own mind.

If you find yourself completely out of your element, know what you can control.  This will help to build confidence so when you encounter situations you have little control over; you can always rely on instinctive rather than reactive behavior.

Panic is a choice.  I chose not to panic. Breathing deeply allowed me to realize the gravity of the situation.

Panicking in business is a reactive behavior.  You may find yourself in many of these situations throughout your entrepreneurial career.  Bringing attention to yourself when things are at their worst might not be a good situation.  Predators prey on weakness.  Don’t panic!  Control yourself.

Careful and swift assessment is vital.  Finding yourself in a situation like swimming with sharks is a unique one and it was not done purposefully.  I chose to swim the way I came in because I knew it was tried and true.

Assessing your situation in times of adversity is vital in understanding your own power. Insight during a crisis situation can make you take a step back and analyze your situation rationally.  Developing a measured strategy based on your analysis is strength.

Assumption is basis for misunderstanding.   I am not the Poseidon-fearing, scuba diving, “under the sea”-singing type.  Sure, I love a tasty blackened Mahi Mahi.  I, however, don’t like sharks because honestly they have more teeth than me and they are much sharper than my own.

I didn’t know what kind of sharks they were but they were as long as I was tall, which was good enough for me not to want to be friendly.  I did do some research later with the help of a co-worker and found out they were Blacktip Sharks.

Timid sharks, more curious than aggressive, but have been known to attack humans.  While I thought that they might be eyeballing me for a mid-morning snack, I think they were not hungry but just curious.

Reacting in a competitive business crisis situation should be based on knowledge of yourself and your competitors.

Making assumptions about your competitors without thorough knowledge of their market, products, services and experience doesn’t allow you to make good judgment calls.  Stick to competitive intelligence and measured responses.  You’ll be glad you did.

Reevaluate your obstacles in order to manage them and conquer.  Although there were sharks swimming 10 feet in front of me, I didn’t seem them as obstacles but visualized them as itty-bitty guppies.  It helped me to minimize the stress.  Not seeing them as vicious eating machines allowed me to control how I dealt with it.

Keep a healthy perspective.  Don’t see your competitors as big fishes, even if they are.  See them as guppies!  This way you’ll gobble them up!

Oh, and swimming with sharks is probably just not a good idea, especially if you don’t know what kind they are or if you don’t already have a friendly relationship with them.  I, for one, now have a healthier respect and a better understanding of my friends from the depths and of myself.

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