photo: Tim McKenna


Raphael (Raff) Louis Vitón
11 min readMay 23, 2020


Change/innovation is easier when you learn to surf the big waves.

“They make it look so easy. Paddling past the breakers, reading the waves, standing just as a swell begins to build. Walking on water.” — writes Lane DeGregory.

“Big waves and the fear that comes with them are largely relative. While it might take a massive Mavs bomb to get Aaron Gold’s blood pumping, for the beginner surfer who has only been at it for a few months, a head-high wave can feel huge.” — writes David Kelley from Hawaiian South Shore.

Ready or not… the waves of change will never be this small or this slow again. If change is hard for you, you’re doing it wrong and you’re gonna get pummeled. Take a deep breath — you’ll need it when the waves hold you underwater longer than you ever expected.

Bennies (rookies) are gonna get worked(pummeled) by the big waves.


I’m no “Benny, Shoobie, HODAD, Barney or Rockaway Jake”. (I don’t particularly subscribe to these pejorative terms, but supposedly these are surfer references to “non-surfers” according to the internet.) You and I are not naive rookies or interns dabbling/hacking at some hobby that we may or may not ever get paid for. This isn’t surf camp. We are world-class leaders of business with world-class responsibilities. We have other world-class leaders and communities counting on us. We represent world-class brands, competing at world-class levels.

We are experienced big wave surfers in the context of business. Pre-crisis, post-crisis, polycrisis… we are always pursuing mastery in our leadership, expanding our capabilities, readying ourselves, our teams and our companies for the next set of waves. Our colleagues are all big wave surfers too. We are all in the heavy water.

Last week we held another virtual session with around 100 global leaders of a Fortune 500 company, to help them be at their best. This was a group of big time, big wave surfers from all over the world. We worked on how to stay even more focused and centered to make good decisions for what is coming. We connected leveraging the power of Growth/Learner Mindset to never stop learning and added some new things to help us all surf the waves of disruption and change more effectively.

“Just getting through this” crisis, does not match our gold-medal/world-class standard of leadership excellence…it’s hardly an optimal orientation to a world that is in constant change. I have heard from dozens of leaders expressing their sorrow/fear in the face of these big waves (hoping to just get through this). At the same time I’ve heard dozens of others expressing their renewed arousal/aliveness, anticipation, exhilaration, excitement to jump in and face these new challenges and find treasure. “Part of the appeal of surfing is the experience of immersing ourselves in something that is so much bigger than we are…the thrill that comes with leveling up and pushing our boundaries.” — David Kelley.

“You never can predict when or how it’s going to happen, and that is half the fun of it. All you can do is be ready in case it does.”Greg & Rusty Long of San Clemente.


Crisis is temporary; change is chronic. It is the chronic condition we all have to live with for the rest of our lives. So, here are three readiness priorities to work on (forever until you die) that will help you and me become the big-wave surfers that our team’s & family’s need us to be.

  1. Take care of yourself first (do whatever it takes to be at your best)
  2. Build stronger growth mindsets & muscles (w/self and @scale)
  3. Learn-by-doing — get your experimentation reps in (all day long)

Approach these mastery practices with a lifelong, learner mindset to effectively treat the leader facing the chronic condition of change. There are expert training regimens for each of these three priorities.


To clearly see what the right stuff is to get done, we need to see more & be aware of more. To see more we need to expand our aperture — in order to do that we need to be more present & less reactive — in order to do that we need to literally breathe more deeply. In the many moments of truth each day, if we don’t have awareness of our micro breathing, our macro health/well-being/physiology, etc., we can’t control our psychology either and we’re more likely to be reactive.

Real surfers are always working on increasing lung capacity and the inner game of increasing their comfort with apnea (temporary cessation of breathing). Why? Because big wave surfers fear of drowning. “Hold downs” don’t usually last as long as we think they will, but sometimes they might. “We can hold our breath much longer than we think — and once we know that, we can approach large waves with more confidence.” -David Kelley

For us business big wave surfers, information is our oxygen; blind spots/biases = apnea. We need to train ourselves to see more — to see in three dimensions. If our weakest link/blindspot always kills us, then we should get rid of the blind spots. As the ultimate big wave surfer Laird Hamilton says:

“make sure that your worst enemy doesn’t live between your own two ears.”

We are more effective leading through change when we learn to see the world differently and the work with new eyes. When we see the work in 3-D, we can focus and facilitate (and measure) the direct business benefits across three dimensions of success:

Focus on seeing every situation, every interaction and every challenge/strategy through this 3-D distinction. With greater visibility you can focus on over delivering on all three dimensions of success simultaneously. The next level of high performance and adaptability (at scale) will consistently source from this multidimensional model.

The self (I): Facilitate high engagement/fulfillment. Do this for yourself first — you are at the center of it all — then help others do the same for themselves. Explore how to expand/shift your identity and perspective — opening/expanding to see even more. This is a more existential topic connected to our human propensity to learn and grow all the time (e.g., physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, internally and externally).

The team/relationships (WE): Facilitate high trust. When we show up strong as an individual, fully engaged, fully alive, congruent with our own internal navigation systems, we can contribute more to the team and facilitate the higher levels of trust needed to work through change and uncertainty. Our leadership impact is reflected by our team.

Every team has a micro-culture. Every team makes up the broader culture/system in which these folks operate. Since the system always wins, we should intentionally explore how to make sure the system is enabling, embodying and amplifying potential at individual and team levels versus impeding the individual/team progress with demoralizing organizational contradictions.

The task/achievement (IT): Facilitate high performance. High-performance results come from high-performing teams. The pursuit of excellence and execution standards are never compromised or softened when you focus on building soft skills; they are only strengthened. But many outdated and counterproductive performance driving paradigms persist — we need to focus on different levers of change and sourcing from potentially counterintuitive sources of energy (not just the carrot and stick).

Reminder: start with the “I”, first and foremost. Results are conditional, but WHO we are being and how we treat each other while we work through change is always unconditional. Our values, our purpose and the guiding principles that we stand for are always unconditional. They serve as our grounding — our sources of certainty in the face of uncertainty. It is wildly comforting for leaders to know that we can actually control something. We can take 100 percent responsibility for walking our talk. Congruence is how you deliver on integrity. Congruence is the ultimate form of leadership presence. Congruence is leadership currency.

Most leaders don’t talk about these kinds of assets with their peers. Most do not have their own explicit measures/standards of integrity consciously present for themselves when they need them most, let alone tracking them (in a weekly “walk the talk” practice) like their most precious KPIs.

When they learn to inventory them, share them and operationalize them, it is incredibly powerful on so many levels. When they do, it creates a substantial shift in the way they respond under pressure and the results they can create. Just doing different leadership things isn’t enough to generate the results we are committed to. We have to focus on our identity to know if we’re becoming the best version of ourselves or not… let alone becoming the kind of leaders who are walking embodiments of adaptability, resilience, humanity and love. With this clarity and focus on our own identity work, we will feel infinitely stronger no matter how the world around us changes.

Make sure you don’t kid yourself about focusing on priority #1. It is infinitely easier to work on #2 and #3, with a relentlessly humble, curious, soulful and sacred commitment to priority #1. Priority #1 is your leverage.


Start with vertical learning. Start at the mindset/identity level while also progressively adding in more and more of the horizontal tools/skills. Any new skill/behavior, even the most common sense ones, will not get sustainable traction if exercised/practiced on top of the current level mindsets/identity.

The challenge with growth/change isn’t what the leader knows but who the leader is (our identity/mindsets), who we are becoming (expanding/growing into), and what level of thinking capabilities (complexity, systemic/strategic, interdependent ways of thinking, relating and taking action) we have access to.

Focus on variables in our control: Victims of change can’t innovate nor lead themselves (let alone others) through change.Victims see the world doing “it” to them; they can only react. They tend to perpetuate the myths about change. The “Victim” mindset is a leader’s (and culture’s) kryptonite. It comes from an unconscious focus on the variables outside of our control. We overcome that “Victim” mindset (reactivity) by building up our Player (Protagonist/Creator) response muscle-memory by focusing on the variables that are in our control. We can’t control our psychology until we get ahold of our physiology, so it takes some time to learn how to turn off the hardwired fight and flight reactivity. The practices help us recover more quickly and shift our energy to source from the “Creator/Player” mindset and play the hand we are dealt — no more sideline victim responses taking ourselves and our teams out of the game. Exploring these implications of being response-able = the practice of self-empowerment and helping others find their power under stress is the most productive (superhero-like) way to work through chronic change.

Focus on growing/learning, (temporarily) not knowing: What we know — our expertise — has a short shelf life. Our “Knower/Fixed” mindset is an unsober mindset full of blind spots, cognitive biases that unconsciously condition our thinking patterns and behavior based on old knowledge. We need to expand our options in addition to what we currently know and make room for lots of options outside of our current perspective. When we understand our traditional relationship to failure, learning, default thinking patterns and behaviors, we can choose instead to more often source from a more effective “Learner/Growth” mindset as opposed to being a “Knower/Fixed” in time. Our curiosity muscles drive our creativity/innovation muscles. But first, we need to learn how utterly reliant curiosity muscles are on our humility muscles. Ontological humility is the gateway to focusing on making sure our perspectives are expanding and we are becoming changed (by the process of learning). Learning how to stay in the ever-expanding “stretch” zone tension, learning how to help others expand with you, and growing to love/crave the “wobbly” feeling that coincides with the emotional labor of learning new things is where exponential growth meets exponential change.


For sustainable progress in any domain that matters to us, we start with our healthiest and strongest self + we channel our best player/learner/growth mindsets + we apply our curiosity/collaboration/courage muscle groups + we operationalize our deliberate practice for consistency over intensity.

The path to mastery and “next level” performance requires that we get in the maximum number of reps per decade. We are working on building healthier lifestyle habits, so the approach that works best with adults is to “learn by doing” & reflecting = experimentation.

Treat everything like a business prototype, because that is all it really is. Even culture change should be handled as a business prototype. Adults learn more deeply and more quickly when they learn together in the context of business — learn during work, at the “point of need.” Apply your reps for №1 and №2 above on real issues/challenges versus just attending training events.

We will need extensive, live-action practice reps, applying mindsets and skills training to personally relevant business initiatives, in order to learn how to override our automatic/default reactive, stressed-out brain responses and become the kind of leaders who can lead this transformation more effectively.

Expanding these integral muscles happens in the middle of the work and the craziness. The craziness is always a great reason to practice and the best arena to practice in.

Don’t just try harder; train. Tweaking the system is not enough. Hacking/dabbling undermines the leader we need each of us to be. Play the long game. It’s the only constructive game that works on a chronic challenge like change. Let’s be kind to ourselves as we prototype our sustainable training rituals that we can fall in love with on the road to mastery.

Don’t just train alone; train together. Let’s do more of what makes us all stronger. A boost in mental toughness will have an integrated, compound effect on us physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Let’s get serious about the way we teach each other, to treat each other, while working. Self-development and self-care is inextricably relational.

All leadership is “big wave” leadership. For the sake of better short and long term business outcomes on all three dimensions of success, let’s get serious about our big wave training. Let’s train beyond simply “adapting to the new normal” and instead let’s train to get ahead of whatever reality comes next.



Raphael (Raff) Louis Vitón

We're always building something - let's focus on building what matters most. First things first, Build U. #iamaninnovationproject