Kelly Slater: Master of the board

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills,Profiles in Leadership

How did a young man from Cocoa Beach, Fla.—a place not known as a surfing haven—become the greatest surfer of all time? Luck? No, unbelievable drive and determination.

Lessons from a surfing legend:

• Put in 10,000 hours of practice. Remember the concept that 10,000 hours of practice can make you an expert in a field (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers)? Kelly Slater started riding a plastic foam belly board at age 5 and was hooked at age 8.

Slater describes the swells he rode then as “tiny ripples,” but because of that, he says, they were “user-friendly.”

• Defy expectations. In 2011, nearing his 40th birthday, Slater won yet another world championship, his 11th.

• Improvise. “He loves improv,” says Matt Warshaw, author of History of Surfing. “He just makes stuff up on the fly. He can change his mind halfway through a turn and make it come out completely different than he originally intended. He also ranges all over the line to find a great wave, instead of stubbornly staying in one place hoping the wave will find him.”

• Think like a jujitsu master. Slater says that surfers have to master stance, balance and efficiency of movement, plus be strong enough to stay in contact with the board during tricky moves—like those in martial arts. Leverage and efficiency are just as critical in business.

• Never, ever give up. At the April 2010 Rip Curl Tournament in Australia, Slater was injured in the first round, but came back for the win.

• Adapt to changing conditions. ­Slater’s biggest challenge over the course of his 20-year career? “To stay on top of the evolution of maneuvers on small waves, and to get enough time and training on big waves,” he says. “But nothing ever seems mastered in the ocean. It’s all moving around and happening, and it’s up to you to read the choices right and just respond.”

— Adapted from “Kelly Slater, the Chairman of the Board,” Owen Edwards, Smithsonian.

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