Whenever we open a news app, we’re inundated with headlines on foreboding topics. Looming recession. Political turmoil. Social unrest. Climate change. It seems there’s no end to the doom and gloom. In times like these, the path toward success isn’t just murky; it seems to have fallen away altogether. How can leaders navigate the challenges ahead — and come out on top — if we don’t know where our economy, our organizations or even we ourselves will be in the months ahead?
We should take our cues from a creature that has thrived at the top of its food chain for millennia, despite the fury and unpredictability of nature: the shark.
Contrary to their reputation as brutal, indiscriminate killers, sharks are actually smart, adaptable creatures with a deep respect for their environment — and their behaviors reveal the building blocks of lasting success.
One notable example: While one might assume sharks depend on their own brute power to survive in the ocean, their relationships with other fish are incredibly important.
Sharks rely on remoras, or suckerfish, to eat parasites that would otherwise sicken and kill them. In return, the remoras receive a free ride — and the shark’s protection.
It’s not so different for humans. True success isn’t achieved through controlling others or being perceived as a threat. Not even hard work and meticulous preparation are enough to guarantee that we’ll achieve our goals in today’s rapidly evolving and uncertain environment. Instead, it’s our network of relationships that brings value to our endeavors in work and in life, and that keeps us afloat and moving forward when the waters get rough.
My new book Swim! uses an engaging business fable to teach the lesson that it takes the right team and the right attitude to achieve our potential. “Big fish” aren’t ruthless loners; instead, they work with and develop others, constantly seek out opportunities to improve themselves, admit their mistakes and don’t allow the past to define them.
Here are my “Sacred Six” principles that will help individuals adopt a few shark-like characteristics and become a valued — and valuable — impact player in their own ecosystem:
Sharks never stop moving forward. Some species of powerful sharks, including great whites and hammerheads, must continually swim forward. They need to keep water flowing through their gills to avoid drowning, which means that they can’t stop — and they certainly can’t swim backward. This aspect of shark anatomy offers an important lesson in seeking progress at all times, even when we’re tired or have made a mistake.
If we make a mistake once, it’s a lesson. But if we make the same mistake twice, it’s a choice. If we revert back to our old ways — or if we give up and stop swimming altogether — we’ll never improve our future. Instead, it’s crucial to move forward with purpose and direction. Fail forward. In most instances, we can overwhelm a mistake with hard work. Just as forward movement literally gives sharks life, the progress we make will infuse us with renewed motivation and passion.
Sharks never look down; they always look up. Sharks keep their eyes on the water ahead of and above them, ready to react when prey appears. They don’t waste their time or energy focusing on what’s beneath them. Similarly, it’s important for us to keep our eyes — and our attitudes — pointed in a productive direction.
In most situations, our attitude is the only thing that can stop us. It’s not that we’ll never experience failure. Sometimes the fish will get away; sometimes another shark will chomp it before we can. Our job is to focus on what we can do, instead of on what we can’t, and to always be vigilant for opportunities.
Sharks are always curious and learning. Sharks can grow up to a foot a year, and their development isn’t purely physical; they are always paying attention and are always learning. In fact, many sharks don’t attack potential prey indiscriminately. They observe and investigate before striking to make sure it’s a creature they want to eat.
If our lives aren’t growing and improving, something is wrong. Sometimes we receive valuable instruction from other people, but more often, it’s our responsibility to engage in self-reflection and self-analysis. Only by examining our choices, actions and motivations can we begin to work on our strengths and weaknesses. Once we do identify a weakness that needs to be shored up or a gap in our skill set, we should be decisive and relentless in addressing it.
Sharks always respect their environment and recognize other sharks. Sharks don’t typically perceive other sharks as threats, and they seldom attack one another. In other words, there’s room in the “ocean” for multiple leaders, mentors and success stories — no need to feel threatened or intimidated by another’s accomplishments or position. Instead, we should strive to recognize the value that others bring to our team.
Actually, some species of sharks work with others when hunting in order to take down larger prey. They tap into the strengths of their fellow sharks to achieve a common goal — and so should we. We can look around us for others in our field who are getting it done as well as — or better than! — we are. We can identify the “sharks” in our own lives not just by their job titles or notoriety, but by looking at their character, work ethic and values — and pay special attention to sharks who influence others by proactively recognizing and coaching them.
Sharks are always flexible. A shark’s skeleton isn’t made of bone, but of flexible cartilage that enables it to change direction swiftly and efficiently. Some sharks are even able to swim in saltwater and freshwater. All these things are instinctive for sharks, but for humans, changing and adapting to new situations can be extremely difficult.
A reluctance to change is what causes many people to stop moving forward. But it’s not our past decisions that define us, but our next decision. Often, the next “right” decision lies close to home; for instance, choosing to change our attitude or to accept constructive criticism. The good news is, the more flexible we become in the self-improvement arena, the easier it will be to pivot and persevere when external conditions become challenging.
Sharks always elevate their suckerfish to new levels. Suckerfish attach themselves to sharks. While they enjoy a “free” ride through the ocean, they eat scraps from the shark’s kills, as well as any parasites that might otherwise sicken and kill the shark. In other words, both the shark and the suckerfish get value from this relationship. There’s a lesson in here for us as well.
In the human world, suckerfish are people who want to go places but need help to get there. They need direction and guidance, and to have their questions answered with patience. The more energy we put into helping them learn and grow, the more value they will bring to our team. And eventually, they will become sharks themselves. I truly believe that we aren’t successful unless we take others with us.
Sharks are such effective predators because evolution has given them everything they need to be successful — and the same is true for us. We just have to make the choice to develop and use our shark-like skills daily.
Swimming like a shark is a process that we must actively participate in throughout our lives. It’s a mindset and a lifestyle. The “Sacred Six” principles are a blueprint for how to operate as a person of integrity and success.
Walter Bond is the author of Swim!: How a Shark, a Suckerfish, and a Parasite Teach You Leadership, Mentoring, & Next Level Success. Bond is also a renowned business coach, motivational speaker and former NBA player. His time in the NBA taught him the fundamentals every team needs to be successful, and today he shares his knowledge with global audiences to help entrepreneurs, business leaders, sales teams and employees get to the next level. Bond has keynoted conferences in numerous countries for brands such as 3M, Hilton, and Allianz.