Agile leadership: You can learn a lot by exercising with locals

As a frequent business traveller you need to adjust to various cultural idiosyncrasies—such as ignoring the road rules (Italy) or tipping adequately (US).

For this reason, agile leaders should on the lookout for cultural norms when travelling. Surprisingly, my commitment to swimming has consolidated some of my best insights.

Let me share my top four with you here and invite you to contribute your own in the comments field below.

Australia

In Australia we are used to swimming in a circular fashion in pools with marked lanes.  We maximise the resource.  Five or six people easily swim in the same lane, and you always keep to the left (like on the roads . . .).  The lanes are usually marked “slow”, “medium”, “fast”.  I swim in the slow lane at the Melbourne City Baths but can handle the medium lane at my weekend suburban pool. 

UK

You can always tell an Australian in a hotel pool in the UK.  We disturb the water and swim a lot of freestyle.  We are not doing gentle, English (or Irish or Scottish) breast stroke either: this takes the form of a peculiar ‘head above the water, don’t get my hair wet’ approach—for women and men.  There are usually no lanes roped off, but everybody makes room for everybody else by weaving in and out—a bit like their dedication to, and expectation of, queuing.

Europe

In Italy and Belgium and many other European countries, if you manage to find a hotel with a pool—and one that opens before 8am—you’d better have a bathing cap with you.  For some reason it is seen as ‘unclean’ to have one’s hair uncovered.  Even if you are bald the rule applies.  Several times I have had to pay a few euros for a cap because they just won’t let me swim in the pool with my short, clean hair uncovered.  It’s the rule and no one can remember who decided it, but it is a rule and it can’t be broken.

 US

US pools are different again.  Here there are often lanes and people ‘own’ them.  So, if you get there first, you have a whole lane to yourself for as long as you want it.  If the lane is very wide, two people go up and down in their own ‘zone’, not the in the circular manner of Australians.  Others can just wait until you finish as those who got there first have supremacy.  At a sports club pool in San Francisco, the smallish pool was divided into seven narrow ‘single person’ lanes—only one person could fit in each lane anyway.

Do swimming styles really reflect business cultures?

I regularly ponder on how all of this can contribute to agile leadership.  For starters, it seems to reinforce perceptions about cultural norms.

As gross generalisations, the English like order; Europeans stress the rules (although no one can remember why they are important anymore); there is a strong thread of individualism in the US; and Australians are easy going—they share and are collegial.

Australians have a deserved reputation for being team oriented, resourceful, and for getting on with the job no matter what.  There is less emphasis on the need to take personal credit for what is achieved. 

As a result, you will find Aussies doing global jobs all over the place for companies not headquartered in Australia.  And you’ll find them over-represented in hotel or sports club swimming pools, thrashing about rather than sedately floating on top of the surface.

Marianne