Thoughts on Leadership: Leading like Duke

By Gino Blefari

This week my travels find me in Maui, spending time with my family to recharge for the busy weeks ahead. Remember, balance in your schedule is so important. I schedule myself a year out. The first things to schedule are the most critical business meetings you know you can’t miss. The next thing before you schedule anything else is to include whatever gives you balance like your vacations and days off. So, I’ve known for some time about this Maui trip and have had ample opportunity to plan for it in my schedule.

When I’m in Waikiki, I stop by Duke’s Waikiki, a restaurant named after waterman and “Hawaii’s most famous son,” Duke Kahanamoku, who was an Olympic swimmer and embodied what the genuine spirit of Aloha means. I’ve been reading up on Duke and discovered an interesting story about Duke’s leadership on display in Newport Beach, California, just a short drive from the Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices HQ. There are many inspiring leadership lessons we can take from this tale, and I’d like to share a brief version of it with you now:

It was June 14, 1925, almost exactly 97 years ago exactly to the day. Dawn was barely breaking and an unexpectedly strong rainstorm (also known as a chubasco) had pummeled into the coast of Southern California. In Newport Beach, the waves reached upwards of 20 to 30 feet. Amid this violent squall, a 40-foot, 5-ton sport fishing boat called The Thelma was attempting to get into the harbor.

The L.A. Times described the situation like this: “[The Thelma] was caught broadside in the teeth of three tremendous breakers and rolled completely over three times from starboard to port on the sand of the shallow bar.”

It was a dire situation and the fishermen thrashed in the water with no life vests or flotation devices to help them stay afloat. As it turns out, a 34-year-old named Duke (yes, one in the same with our Hawaiian legend) had driven to Newport Beach that day to catch some waves with his friends.

One of Duke’s friends pointed out to him that there was a boat in the water, and it looked like it was in trouble.

First, let’s give you an idea about Duke’s strength. The boards he was riding were far from the sleek shortboards you might see today. His 12-ft., 6-inch-thick board was made from mahogany and was estimated to weigh more than 200 pounds. 

So, here was three-time Olympic gold medalist Duke, a surfer able to handle a 200-pound board who happened to be watching from the shore as scared-for-their-lives fishermen fell out of their vessel and into the ferociously frothy waters. He’d later tell newspapers the swell was so heavy, “only a porpoise or a sea lion had a right to be out there,” and said the moment The Thelma flipped, he saw a “mountain of solid green water curled down upon the vessel,” noting, “neither I nor my pals were thinking heroics … we were simply running … me with my boards and the others to get their boards.”

Discussing the June 14 event as documented in the book, “Legendary Surfers,” Duke said the prospect of saving the fishermen “seemed impossible.”

But the key word here is “seemed,” because a true leader, when faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge, will figure out a solution forward every time.

He got on his board and paddled through the mighty swell, pulling fishermen onto his surfboard, paddling them to shore then going back out to save more.  Sometimes, he’d put one fisherman on his board, other times he carried two or three in what he later described as a “delirious shuttle system.”

In David Davis’ book, Waterman, the author described the moment the epic rescue finally came to an end: “For a third time, Kahanamoku turned to the sea. He picked up stragglers and placed them on his board until, finally, he could do no more.”

Duke was able to save eight fishermen, and two of his friends saved four more.  Newport Beach Chief of Police Captain James Porter called Duke’s actions “the most superhuman rescue act and the finest display of surfboard riding that has ever been seen in the world.”

So, what’s the message? When the reporters descended on the beach to talk to Duke, the heroic surfer and swimmer was nowhere to be found. With characteristic humility, Duke had left the scene before the media throng arrived. He simply didn’t care about the headlines. His selfless spirit of aloha was what drove him to save those fishermen on that stormy day – not the chance to garner any fame for his life-saving efforts. It’s that same spirit of aloha every leader should possess. Success may come in waves, but selflessness is as vast and ever lasting as the ocean.

Respond to Thoughts on Leadership: Leading like Duke

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