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1-Page Leadership: Waterskiing with Winston

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Lincoln Bleveans's picture
Executive Director -- Sustainability & Energy Management Stanford University

Global Energy, Water, and Sustainability Executive | Thought Leader, Speaker, and Writer | Strategy, Planning, Project Development, Operations, M&A, and Transformation | Team Builder...

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  • Sep 30, 2019

No matter what kind of books you search for — business, management, leadership — on, you get the same sobering answer: “over 100,000 results.” Which could be 100 million, and just might be. Each is hundreds of pages (and thus hours and hours) long. Ouch.

Let’s go the opposite way: One-Page Leadership. In this installment …

Waterskiing with Winston

Tips up. Lean back. Arms straight. Let the boat pull you up. You’re going to do great.

Between running local YMCA snow skiing trips in the winter and spending every possible moment on a boat in the summer, I taught hundreds of kids to ski in my teenage years.

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Water skiing (this was a time before wake boards and other alternatives) was especially challenging to teach: get them set, wait for the boat to come back around, hit it!, SPLASH!, swim 50 yards to where they fell, reassure, repeat.

Probably not Winston Churchill (but you never know).  Photo:

All but a very very few eventually got up and stayed up. Their proud and triumphant smiles could have lit-up a city. Then they tried to cross the boat’s wake for the first time and splash! But they popped up again and soon were nonchalantly circling that little lake.

They persevered and succeeded, I think, because I quickly learned to amend that last sentence. “You’re going to do great” was true but incomplete. They needed to know more than that: “You’re going to fall — probably a lot — and you’re going to do great.”

Trying means falling. We can’t learn anything, or get good at anything, without permission to fall. And you can’t really learn to do something by watching others do it. No exceptions.

Beware a job candidate, especially at senior levels of an organization, who hasn’t drunk a fair amount of lake water — and learned from each soaking crash.

Careers and companies, individuals and institutions: no exceptions.

The key is to pop back up and try again, getting closer to success every time. Of course, that is easier said than done on a personal level. (Ask me how I know. Hint: “start-up”). Those journeys are as individual as those of us who make them.

But organizations can be different. I say “can” because creating and defending a resilient culture — a “pop back up” culture — is no accident. It is deliberate and ongoing effort for the organization. It begins and ends with you as a leader, both at the organizational and individual level, for both yourself and others.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.



Can you imagine Winston Churchill on waterskis? (Don’t answer that.) But his words right true: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Failure is relative — and temporary. For example, my failure as an entrepreneur led me — quite unexpectedly — to a job I’m passionate about (municipal power) in a place I never expected to call home, let alone love (Southern California). Go figure.

Failure is not an unfortunate outcome; failure is ignoring and/or failing to apply its lessons. Those lessons, in turn, are the foundation of consistent, durable success. As a leader, then, make sure that those who make erroneous but good faith, principles-consistent decisions go under the bus. Leaders stand between those people and the bus. Better yet, leaders work to get rid of the bus entirely.

“It is the courage to continue that counts.” That resilience leads to durable success — and a durable, high-performing organization. Leaders model that courage and recognize and support it in others.

Now, “tips up. Lean back. Arms straight. Let the boat pull you up. You’re going to fall — probably a lot — and you’re going to do great.



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Lincoln Bleveans is a 25-year veteran of the global electric power industry. He is currently an executive at a progressive, vertically integrated municipal electric and water utility in Southern California. A frequent speaker at industry events, he is the author of “Like Water to a Fish: a Future of Energy Everywhere”, "Sustainability 2.0", and other works on energy, sustainability, and leadership. Tweets @bleveans. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, or other group or individual.

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Audra Drazga's picture
Audra Drazga on Sep 30, 2019


As a water skier myself, I loved finding this post in the community this Monday morning. 

I basically grew up at the lake during my childhood summers.  I definitely drank my fair share of water, had a few rope burns because I did not hold the rope in the right place, and took falls that made me wonder why the heck I was doing this.  I can say this for my career as well. 

I feel for this younger generation who struggle with failure. They do not seem to have the coping mechanisms to get back on their skies and try again.  It’s a little scary.  Our challenge as managers is how do we work with this generation and help them realize that falls are part of the process!

And no I can’t imagine Winston on skies!


Lincoln Bleveans's picture
Lincoln Bleveans on Sep 30, 2019

Thanks Audra -- I'm so glad it resonates.  

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