Leadership in Diving? Why is it needed, it is only a sport..

- english gareth lock human factors leadership teamwork Dec 11, 2017

One of the worst dives I have undertaken was in the Red Sea on a night dive scootering between the four wrecks on the Abu Nuhas reef. The dive itself had the potential to be awesome. 10 divers on scooters, a mixture of OC and CCR divers (I was on CCR), following the reef from left to right on the image below, stopping off at each wreck for a quick look inside and then moving on. Relatively clear warm water. But it was night time. We entered the water late, around dusk. We hadn't planned it, but there was an issue on the boat which meant we were delayed. 

The reason I hated it was because I was responsible for the divers in the group. I wasn't leading it, that was the guide's job, but they weren't keeping track of the divers and I didn't want to lose anyone. At night, 10 HIDs or powerful LEDs all look the same so diver identification was really hard. Ever tried counting 9 black cats in a dark room?! I felt accountable, so I led.

After 70mins, during which we passed all four wrecks and explored them to a limited extent, we ascended above the Ghiannis D and all made it onto the zodiacs. There was a big swell, a swell that meant picking the divers up from close to the reef in the dark would have been really dangerous. Something that would have been needed if a diver got separated from the group.

When everyone was onboard, there was lots of hands in the air and shouts of "what an awesome dive!".

Except me.

I didn't enjoy the dive because I could see the potential for disaster and I had made myself accountable - all my concentration was focussed on not losing any divers, running the CCR and driving the DPV. As a consequence I didn't have 'fun'. Ironically, staying under the water was likely a safer option than thumbing it and ascending.

Leadership can be a lonely place sometimes...but it is something that needs to be taken seriously which is why I wrote this blog about how we should consider leadership more in diving after I read an amazing email from a leader killed in Afghanistan...

During my classes I cover the subject of leadership and how it is situational in nature. This means that one style does not suit all leaders, all teams or all environments but the most effective leaders are able to move between styles based on the team, the task and the environment.

Even though leadership style is situational, the core values of what a leader does and how they should approach the situation are common if they are aiming for high performance and excellence. More on this shortly...

Diving instructors are leaders. Instructor trainers are leaders. Dive centre managers are leaders (despite their title!). Dive Masters are leaders. Divers can be leaders too! And yet leadership is not taught in classes.

Leaders motivate. They encourage. They show humility. They demonstrate vulnerability. They act as role models, even if the behaviours they model are not what they expect others to follow...

These behaviour are even more important when they get to Instructor Trainer, Course Director or Instructor Examiner level. If you are at the high levels within an organisation, why wouldn't you help out with the basics and humping/dumping? Being a great leader is about taking time out every now and then to see what it is like to be someone junior and learn from their perspective.

A number of friends of mine who are instructors, ITs and IEs all take time out each year to learn something new. Partly because they have a passion for learning and want to grow, but also because it reinforces what it is like to be a beginner again. When was the last time you took a course which wasn't about pure progression up the diving progression ladder?

I am obviously biased with my military aviation experience, but this letter from a Marine Corps Attack Squadron Commanding Officer, shows what goes into leadership and what was expected of his team. Unsurprisingly, it resonates heavily with what I perceive leadership and teamwork to be about... 


9 Dec 11
From: Commanding Officer, Marine Attack Squadron 211
To: Squadron Attack Pilots


1. Professional hunger. My goal is to identify those Officers who want to be professional attack pilots and dedicate the resources required to build them into the flight leaders and instructors that are required for the long-term health of our community. This is not a socialist organization. We will not all be equal in terms of [qualifications] and flight hours. Some will advance faster than others, and because this is not a union, your rate of advancement will have nothing to do with seniority. Your rate of advancement will instead be determined by your hunger, professionalism, work ethic, and performance. If flying jets and supporting Marines is your passion and your profession, you are in the right squadron. If these things are viewed simply as your job, please understand that I must invest for the future in others. Your time in a gun squadron might be limited, so it is up to you to make the most of the opportunities that are presented.

2. Professional focus. Our approach to aviation is based upon the absolute requirement to be "brilliant in the basics." Over the last few years Marine [Tactical Air] has not punted the tactical nearly so often as the [administration]. Sound understanding of [Naval Air Training & Operating Procedure & Standard], aircraft systems, and [Standard Operating Procedures] is therefore every bit as important as your understanding of the ANTTP and TOPGUN. With this in mind, ensure the admin portions of your plan are solid before you move onto objective area planning. Once you begin tactical planning, remember that keeping things "simple and easy to execute" will usually be your surest path to success. If the plan is not safe, it is not tactically sound.

3. Attitude. I firmly believe in the phrase "hire for attitude, train for skill." Work ethic, willingness to accept constructive criticism, and a professional approach to planning, briefing, and debriefing will get you 90 percent of the way towards any qualification or certification you are pursuing. The other 10 percent is comprised of in-flight judgment and performance, and that will often come as a result of the first 90 percent. Seek to learn from your own mistakes and the mistakes of others. Just as a championship football team debriefs their game film, we are going to analyze our tapes and conduct thorough flight debriefs. It has often been said that the success of a sortie is directly proportional to the caliber of the plan and brief. The other side of this coin is that the amount of learning that takes place as a result of a sortie is directly proportional to the caliber of the debrief.

4. Moral courage. Speak up if something seems wrong or unsafe. We all know what the standards are supposed to be in Naval Aviation and in the Corps. Enforce them! When we fail to enforce the existing standards, we are actually setting and enforcing a new standard that is lower.

5. Dedication. If you average one hour per workday studying, six months from now you will be brilliant. That is all it takes; one hour per day. As you start to notice the difference between yourself and those who are unable to find 60 minutes, I want you to know that I will have already taken note. Then, I want you to ask yourself this question: "How good could I be if I really gave this my all?"

6. When all else fades away, attack pilots have one mission: provide offensive air support for Marines. The Harrier community needs professional attack pilots who can meet this calling. It does not require you to abandon your family. It does not require you to work 16 hours per day, six days per week. It requires only a few simple commitments to meet this calling: be efficient with your time at work so that you can study one hour per day; be fully prepared for your sorties and get the maximum learning possible out of every debrief; have thick skin and be willing to take constructive criticism; find one weekend per month to go on cross country. When you are given the opportunity to advance, for those few days go to the mat and give it your all, 100 percent, at the expense of every other thing in your life. To quote Roger Staubach, "there are no traffic jams on the extra mile." (But I hope to see you there from time to time). If you can be efficient during the workweek, give an Olympian effort for check rides and certifications, and are a team player, the sky will literally be the limit for you in this squadron.


Unfortunately Lt Col Raible was killed after 15 insurgents armed with automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and suicide vests breached the perimeter of Camp Bastion, Afghanistan on 15 September 2012. He was fighting on the front-line with his team. The US Marine Corps Aviators take the premise soldier first very seriously, even if you are a senior officer. 


My comments in relation to diving

1. Professional Hunger. Strive for excellence. Diving is a discretional, recreational activity in which you choose how you dive. It doesn't mean you have to be Advanced Trimix CCR divers on a 100m dive. You can do a leisurely dive on a reef in 10m and still strive for excellence. You can do that dive in a professional manner in which you respect other divers and the environment. In addition to aiming for excellence, there also needs to be a recognition that some diving is outside of your limits, despite what the marketing brochures say! That understanding also goes for instruction. Become an instructor for the development of others not because it is cool card to carry.

2. Professional Focus. Plan your dive. Dive your plan. Easy to say, but how often does your reality match your plan? What about the pre-dive stuff like gas analysis, gear preparation, equipment servicing, pre-dive checks/buddy checks? An understanding of the 'rules' means that responses are likely to be more timely and effective, and as a consequence, safer. Furthermore, an understanding means you are able to assess risks more effectively. Humans are rubbish at making rational decisions when emotions are running high, which is why it is better to come up with a plan before things start getting interesting.

3. Attitude. One of the most common goals from my classes is 'debrief after every dive' because I demonstrate that only with a structured debrief can we reliably improve performance and consequently, safety. A debrief is why high performing teams and individuals get to where they are and why they got there so quickly. Fundamentally, they are constantly looking for ways to improve. If you think a debrief is overkill, you can cover an effective debrief in about 10-15 mins with a team of 3, you just need to keep it focussed. Be specific and targeted for lessons identified and lessons learned.

4. Moral courage. Here there is a bit of an issue with diving. Standards, as written, are somewhat variable. Even more variable is the adherence to them across the diving community. However, within your own team, there should be some standards which are considered critical. If they are not detailed on the surface, when the situation starts to go downhill, your capacity will be limited and you are now having to resolve the problem and work out what is 'right'. Without standards it is really hard to hold each other accountable and prevent drift and deviation.

 5. Dedication. How much personal development do you do in your diving? Not just in-water skills such as sending up a dSMB, improving your UW photography technique, or buoyancy skills, but learning about decompression theory, diving incidents and how they happened, or leadership and other human factors skills. "Leaders in learning mode develop stronger skills than their peers" - Harvard Business Review, Aug 2017 

Gareth Lock is the owner of The Human Diver, a niche company focused on educating and developing divers, instructors and related teams to be high-performing. If you'd like to deepen your diving experience, consider taking the online introduction course which will change your attitude towards diving because safety is your perception, visit the website.