What leaders can learn from Diana Nyad

DianaNyadOver the weekend, when you and I were eating hamburgers from the grill and watching TV, Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage. What makes this even more impressive is that she is 64 years old, and this was her fifth try (her first attempt was in 1978). She swam 110 miles in 53 hours, through the Florida Straits, notorious for its strong currents, sharks and swarms of stinging jellyfish. Amazing!

You can read the NY Times article about her trip here. Also, I’ve included a video at the end of this article of her super-inspiring TED talk — from a few years ago (after an unsuccessful attempt … and prior to another unsuccessful attempt) — that talks about her motivation, and some of the personal struggles that such an undertaking involves.

When she completed her swim on Monday, here’s what she said:

“I have three messages…

One is we should never, ever give up.

Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams.

Three is it looks like a solitary sport but it takes a team.”

Never Give Up

Each of these three lessons is worth reflecting on, but I’d like to emphasize the first, especially as it relates to leadership. Never, ever give up. Anything worth doing is hard. Anything worth doing will take more time, effort, and money than you expect. Anything worth doing will likely involve setbacks and times of discouragement.

I read an interesting book on this subject last year called “The 10x Rule: The only difference between success and failure“. Essentially, the message of the book is that when we embark on some project or important task, we should assume that it will take ten times as long, ten times as much money, and ten times as much work as we expect. The author was an entrepreneur, so he focused on starting new companies and other business projects. It applies to leadership in any setting.

As a church planter who’s started two churches, and now pastors a new church started three years before I came here, I can testify that this truth applies in the spiritual world as well … it’s always way harder than you think.

I’m not sure if I would say it’s ten times as much work, time, etc … but certainly three or four times as much. More than double, for sure. Most of us tend to be optimists, and most of us are naive about all the things that can go wrong. When engaging in challenging tasks, we are often surprised and dismayed by the resistance and obstacles that need to be overcome. Keep going. Don’t give up.

Learning instead of quitting

Diana Nyad tried – and failed – four times to complete this quest. Each time she was discouraged, and wondered if it was time to give up. Especially as she was getting older, I’m sure it must have been tempting to let go of the dream. But instead she learned from each of her attempts, and kept trying.

On one of her attempts, she was derailed by jellyfish stinging her face. She was eventually taken out of the water with swelling that raised serious concerns for her health. Instead of giving up, she developed a special mask to protect her face on subsequent trips. One time she was derailed by the currents pulling her off course. She adjusted to that in future trips as well, by having the lead boat establish the direction for her.

I love that tenacity, and want to see it more in my own life, and in the settings where I work (mostly in churches, and mostly with pastors). Let’s be honest: it’s not always there. In fact, in some settings we see just the opposite … people using their spiritual ideas as a reason (excuse?) to give up when things get hard.

This is simply spiritualizing laziness. Some people assume that “if God is in it” … then it’s going to be easy. If some project encounters setbacks, they rush to second guess the project, trying to read the circumstances like people trying read tea leaves in a cup, to discern if they are “doing God’s will” or “running ahead of God.”

Just shut up and do what you are called on to do. Nobody said it was going to be easy. And if, in the end, it turns out that it wasn’t what God wanted you to do, then that will become clear as time goes on. In other words, don’t take difficulties and challenges as spiritual signs that you’re off-track. Difficulties and challenges are just part of life … and part of leadership in any endeavor. “God’s blessing” doesn’t function like an umbrella to keep you from getting wet.

How I’m putting this into practice

Right now I’m in the process of writing a book, and establishing a network of Leadership Communities. I am hoping to make peer support and coaching groups available to a wide variety of pastors, and help them grow their leadership. It’s not always easy. People wonder “Is this going to work?” “Will pastors actually take the time to participate in these groups?” I think they will. I’m going to keep going, excited by the good response I have from pastors, and looking forward to these groups starting up.

Diana Nyad has a lot to teach all of us. Make adjustments as needed. Take setbacks as feedback to learn from, and alter your course accordingly. But keep going.


Here’s Nyad giving a TED talk about extreme swimming. Like everything else about her, it’s inspiring (especially when you realize that this talk was given prior to one of her failed attempts.


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