What it takes to lead a technical diving team: A suggested plan for staying real and managing risk


One of the most interesting dynamics of technical diving… both during its planning and execution… revolves around the issue of leadership. It’s not simply a question of who leads and who follows but a much more complex balancing act between responsibilities, experience, team composition and dive goals. And since technical diving is recognized as a high-risk, team-oriented activity, coming up with the correct answers can mean the difference between a great dive and a bad experience.

I guess the most important first step is to understand what we mean by leadership and the factors that inform that definition.

We should start by pointing out that one of the fundamental guidelines recommended is: “The weakest diver leads the dive.”

Now weakest in this context is not an assessment of physical strength or mental fortitude – although these may be factors in some cases. More usually a diver may be “weak” because he or she has less experience with the particular sort of dive being planned and how best to achieve the dive’s specific goals; or they may start the dive with another more subtle disadvantage. On some ocean dives, weakest may be the diver most prone to seasickness and who has taken meds to help deal with that particular stress. It may also be the diver who among his or her peers on the particular day in question wakes up the least rested or most stressed… as in “I’ll lead the dive today because I had a restless night.”

Whatever the actual reason for “weakness” the logic behind this guideline is that it helps eliminate “trust me dives.” In cases where the least experienced diver is the leader, it also offers the best opportunity for that diver to expand his or her comfort zone. Let’s take the example of a cave dive with a three-person team. For this example, let’s say that two of the team have explored the cave on several occasions but for one, this is her first time in. All three may be experienced cave divers, but one is certainly at a slight disadvantage. By having her LEAD the dive, two things are assured. Firstly, she will not be lead into a situation which she finds uncomfortable. Her level of comfort on the dive will most likely be increased since it will go at her pace, and with two companions to “guide” her when the time comes to make a decision – for example “is this the right side-passage to take…” – her comfort zone may be expanded but not breached.

The result will most likely be a much more enjoyable dive for everyone involved since stress levels can be better managed.

This example of leadership during the actual execution of a cave dive may not relate directly to the type of diving you do, but the logic is transferable to all varieties of technical or complex advanced diving whether in a hard overhead environment or not.

It also introduces us to part of the complexity that surrounds the whole question of Leadership in Technical diving, and its definition relative to the importance of coaching and mentorship in the process.

Let’s recap and redefine a little. The weakest diver leads during the EXECUTION of a dive, but this diver would most likely take a backseat role during the actual PLANNING of that same dive.

If we go back to our example, let’s travel by time-machine to a day or two before the execution of the dive to the time our three dive buddies sat down together to plan the dive. We know that all three are experienced cave dives and during their initial assessment of the dive’s parameters they agreed that each had the appropriate training, familiarity with the required equipment, and general experience in the type of environment. What was apparent was that one needed a detailed briefing on the specifics on the dive since she had never been to the site before. This is where the dynamics that influence leadership in technical diving comes into play.

In old-school terms, leadership might be interpreted as the behavior of a tartar or martinet. A person who demands strict adherence to his or her rules and any deviation from those rules will result in some sort of punitive reaction: verbal or otherwise. I am reasonably sure that many of you have first-hand experience of this form of bullying and “management” by intimidation. There is no place for this style of leadership in technical diving… or anywhere else actually. It may have worked to send hapless souls over the trenches during WWI but is about as useful in diving as ashtrays on a motorcycle. There is simply no room for this attitude anywhere close to technical divers planning their dive.

The leader during this stage needs to be empathetic, supportive and their role is more akin to a coach or mentor: someone who encourages others to contribute ideas and suggestions. A real leader shares knowledge, has real information, suggests better alternatives when asked, and gets satisfaction from helping others grow. Essentially, a good leader produces good leaders.
In the example of the planning for the cave dive, the leader might respond to questions about distances and times with something like: “what do you feel comfortable doing?” rather than pushing his or her agenda. In fact, an important part of the mentoring process is to promote the goals of others even when it makes their own subordinate.

For most of our dives, up-front considerations of leadership are a little over-the-top. The vast majority of dives – even technical ones – follow a pattern that is established within the team and roles and responsibilities are simple, understood and virtually unspoken. Often on this type of dive, leadership amounts to little more than: “Hey Jill, how about you run the reel today?” But when game-day brings those special dives… the apex dives for your team… give special consideration to the dynamics of team leadership. Oh, and remember that changing circumstances at depth, may alter who is “weakest” and may require change of “leadership!” But of course, that’s something best learned under the mentorship and coaching of an experienced technical instructor!

A slightly different version of this article appeared in TDI’s eNewsletter in May 2013

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2 thoughts on “What it takes to lead a technical diving team: A suggested plan for staying real and managing risk

  1. Reblogged this on Book of Wu and commented:
    I miss the discipline of technical diving and being surrounded by like-minded people. At least I can read endless articles on technical diving and WRECKS!

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