Don’t Get Seduced Into Skipping Stones

Skipping Stones

I still remember the first time I was introduced to skipping stones. My grandfather led me down the hill to the creek behind our family’s cabin. As we stood on the shoreline at the rushing river’s edge, I watched him root around for a few smooth, flat stones. What I witnessed next amazed me. He threw a rock in a way that it skimmed the surface of the water, skipping several times before sinking to the bottom of the stream. That day my grandfather imparted to me his famous sidearm, flick-of-the-wrist technique. I practiced hard, and over the years we competed to see who could get our rock to bounce the most times atop the water. Skipping stones was mesmerizing fun for me (and still is); but lately, I’ve been connecting this silly pastime to leadership.

Just Skimming the Surface

Every successful leader is susceptible to getting seduced into skipping stones. As leadership pace picks up, skimming the surface personally and professionally can be alluring—despite less-than-ideal results that follow. An uptick in pursuits and responsibilities always adds demands on priorities, time, attention, and resolve. Opportunity is fantastic for leaders, but easily deteriorates into surface-level engagement. Inevitably, someone that started out strong soon discovers he or she is “a mile wide and an inch deep,” as the saying goes. While each “yes” may be well-intended, constant puddle jumping from one idea, initiative, or interaction to the next doesn’t serve others effectively.

Skipping stones seems enticing in the moment, but leaders don’t have to get seduced into playing along. If you’re like me, you may enjoy the adrenaline rush of working on multiple projects, networking with lots of people, and generally leading at Mach-1 speed. Unfortunately, jumping from here to there can unintentionally devalue projects and people. To help me counteract my fast-paced tendency, a friend gave me a gold nugget of wisdom a few months back. His reminder was simple: “Don’t skim.”

He challenged me to resist the temptation to take on too much, pour too little into each commitment, and become too enthralled with what’s next that I miss the here and now.

My peer’s coaching got me thinking.  I began making a connection between skipping stones and skimming personally and professionally as a leader. As I’ve searched for wiser strategies, here are five alternatives to consider adopting as well.

Bring a chair to one leadership shoreline at a time and sit back.

It’s hard to be a world-class stone skipper if you’re seated and relaxed. Decide to be fully present at every leadership commitment you make.

Settle in and connect with people you invite to join you.

Resist running around looking for what’s better and next. Be intentional with what you’re doing and who you’re with in the moment. Your team deserves your sustained interest, attention, and care.

Choose to camp out from start to finish, even when you get bored.

Leaders love vision and strategy, but many check out when it’s time to focus on details. Recognize what triggers you to check-out mentally or physically and push through. Everyone can benefit from your leadership presence and perspective.

Reflect and prepare between one leadership shoreline and the next.

You can lead on multiple fronts at once, but not 100% simultaneously (no one can be in two places at once!). Know your limitations and refuel your physical, mental, emotional, and relational tanks between meetings, phone calls, trips, and new initiatives.

Take another seat and repeat.

Leaders are bombarded with opportunities to do more and go farther and faster. Gear up before diving into another prospect. Declare in advance that you won’t get sucked into stone-skipping as a leader anymore and keep applying the alternatives above.

It surprised me that “don’t skim” stopped me so hard in my leadership tracks when I first heard it. I’ve started making changes in response to this sage perspective. The image of flinging rocks across the top of the water with my grandfather has shifted from a nice story to a leadership metaphor I carry with me. I’m not a perfect portrait of a better way, but I’m starting to see my leadership change every day.