Diana Nyad’s Real Victory: Fewer Heroes, More Swimmers

September 3, 2013 0 Comments

Originally published at Take The Lead

Who needs another hero when you have swimmers like Diana Nyad?

Everybody wants a hero—heroic leadership has been all the rage for centuries—but truly, sometimes we really don’t need one. All we need is a 64 year old author/journalist/distance swimmer named Diana Nyad to fulfill her 35 year long dream of swimming from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage… emerging from the water after 50 hours to remind everybody, “It looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team [effort].”

As we work to step into our own leadership, we’d be wise to listen to Nyad. Because her point applies to just about everything.

I can’t decide which part of Nyad’s story I like best:

  • that she is 64 years old (debunking the myths that most athletes’ careers are over by age 30 and older generations have little to teach us young “innovators”),
  • that this particular swim/achievement was her fifth try,
  • that Nyad has lived such a varied and interesting and courageous life (as anauthor/journalist/athlete),
  • or that she made a point to emphasize her connectedness to others after she alone reached the finish line

I think it has to be this last piece… the role of community in helping us arrive where we want to be going. In an interview for the St. Maarten’s Daily Herald in 2011, Nyad shared a bit about just how many people are involved in the swim: “It’s a large operation, like an expedition. We’ve got about 25 people, navigators, managers, boat crew, weather routers, medical people, shark experts, you name it.” And in an article for The New York Times last year, we learned that the cost of her swim was roughly $500,000.

What’s the big deal? All athletes thank their coaches and team members and families after a big win, right? Maybe… But I’ll take all the talk and reminders of community and connectedness (and how this actually makes us better alone) that I can get in a culture that bombards us with cultural messages and narratives about heroes like, “all it takes is one person” (check out the trailer to the new Steve Jobs movie) and “…until one person changed everything” (how often have we heard this?!) and how if YOU just work hard enough, you can do it, alone, alone, alone.

I don’t know, I’m getting tired of heroes. Not the individual people so much, but the idea of heroes and hero stories. I’m much more interested in people who try five times to do the thing they really want to do, make adjustments along the way, ask for help when they need it, give their team members credit, take the long view of history/the future, and have the guts to stay in it for the long haul.

And in the end, isn’t getting it done the very definition of a real hero and a real leader?

For practical advice about how to show up with less heroism and more leadership, rooted in community, check out “From Hero to Host” by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze.

Filed in: women's leadership

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