Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Breathing Underwater

Written by: on February 15, 2024

We began the dive just in time to catch some slack water between the tides. It wasn’t very long before my buddy approached and knelt right in front of me in the cold, green water. Behind him, the kelp leaned and swayed in the increasing current.   He looked me in the eye and made a slashing motion across his throat, the universal signal for “out of air.” I reached over with my left hand and grabbed his buoyancy compensator pulling him close. With my right hand I pulled my ‘octopus’ regulator free while slightly depressing the purge valve. He was able to start breathing immediately and we made a normal ascent to the surface.

A critical skill for SCUBA diving safely is knowing what to do if you or a buddy run out of air underwater. As a SCUBA instructor, I drilled students so they would have a “conditioned automatic response.” That was 1980’s recreational diving lingo for something like what Eve Poole calls “Leadership Muscle Memory.”[1]  In high stakes environments, like under water and contentious boardrooms, it is important to be able to respond to stress without fight, flight, freeze…or even less helpful reactions. Becoming a calm less-anxious leader is more than watching systems and choosing not to react to the anxiety of others.[2] Like in diving, leadership skills can also be learned through repetition in increasingly challenging situations. Simulation in controlled environments is preparation for more demanding, highly stressful events.

In Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership, author Eve Poole suggests that the skills needed to face critical incidents in leadership can be intentionally learned by templating. Templates teach the brain how to function in lower-stakes situations which increases the leader’s capacity to execute well when the pressure is high. The idea of intentionally creating and practicing scenarios to build stamina for leadership is intriguing. It appeals to my natural propensity for planning and to my less lovely ego which wishes to avoid embarrassment.

In contrast to intentional development, I have quite by accident, recently found myself in a number of ‘stretch-zone’ situations, where I was under-resourced for the task at hand.[3] I was genuinely scared because I had no training the risk was real. Retrospectively, I can see the growth that has occurred and am comforted by knowing I am prepared for bigger stages. If “pressure primes your brain to optimize its performance” then I am not shrinking and compressing under pressure, but being made stronger and better. [4] After this week, I choose to reframe these recent past events as helpful templates for whatever ‘even bigger’ is to come.

This is a life-giving perspective shift. I have been over-focused on my lack of a guide, a mentor, someone to show me the ropes. My previous template for leadership development was primarily as given in Hero Maker by Dave Ferguson and Warren Bird called 5 Steps of Apprenticeship.

  • I do. You watch. We talk.
  • I do. You help. We talk.
  • You do. I help. We talk.
  • You do. I watch. We talk.
  • You do. Someone else watches. [5]

I don’t have another Project Director to show me the way and have been doing things I have never previously seen while moving forward without a map.  From a leadership development point of view, the hardest part has been the lack of feedback to guide me towards improvement. Leadersmithing inspires me to apprentice my own self by templating experiences that can, through little doses of stress and exposure, prepare me for big events, even when I am unsure what the next big event will be![6] Though not recommended for learning to SCUBA dive, Poole says jumping into the deep end and just getting started at some of the more difficult levels makes the learning go even faster.[7]

In SCUBA diving there is a certification level called Dive Master. A Dive Master is like an apprentice. They watch, help and do, on the way to certification as an Instructor. Through experience, they take on more and more responsibility. These days, I am my own Instructor and this week I decided that is OK.

Practice simulations seem the wisest course in the life-or-death scenario of running out of air at 20 meters, but maybe just falling into the deep end isn’t so terrible as I prepare for larger stages?



[1] Eve Poole, Leadersmithing: Revealing the Trade Secrets of Leadership (London ; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Business, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2017), 12.

[2] Jim Herrington, Trisha Taylor, and R. Robert Creech, The Leader’s Journey: Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation, Second edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2020), 58.

[3] Poole, Leadersmithing, 39.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Dave Ferguson and Warren Bird, Hero Maker: Five Essential Practices for Leaders to Multiply Leaders (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018,) 133.

[6] Poole, Leadersmithing, 12.

[7] Ibid., 40.

About the Author

Julie O'Hara

13 responses to “Breathing Underwater”

  1. mm Shela Sullivan says:

    Hi Julie,
    Enjoyed reading your post. Your experiences in both diving and leadership have clearly molded you into a resilient and flexible individual when faced with obstacles. I see the correlation between your SCUBA training’s “conditioned automatic response” and leadership’s “Leadership Muscle Memory” and it is interesting. Your reflection on intentional learning through templating and the accidental “stretch-zone” situations you have faced underscores the importance of experiential learning and adapting to challenges. Bravo Julie!

  2. mm Kari says:

    Hi Julie,

    Thanks for sharing the 5 steps of apprenticeship. I love this! This is similar to the 3 step teaching model we use in health care: 1) See one, 2) Do one, 3) Teach one. In reality it probably looks more like the 5-step model you shared.

    You will be a great instructor and I know you will swim in the deep end rather than sink! What are some resources you can tap in to so that you are not completely alone or without tools in this season?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Kari, In a few weeks I have the chance to interact in person with others who are directing projects in the same grant initiative as me. Your question reminds me to go to that meeting with intentionality to find and meet people to connect with in the coming years. There were certainly be others who are experienced grant project directors.

  3. Daren Jaime says:

    Julie! I learn something new every week from you. Scuba Diving? That is great, and I appreciate you connecting the dots to leadership. You also spoke of the challenges of lack of feedback. The distance makes us uncomfortable. I view it as a longer leash on our growth path. What other part of Poole’s writing positively challenges you?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Daren, I have come to realize that teaching SCUBA, and later becoming an Instructor Trainer (the only woman and youngest ever to do so) prepared me for pastoral ministry: public speaking, leading as a minority, shepherding and protecting, multiplying leadership etc. Who knew? Jesus uses everything! To your question – On page 28 Poole refers to the power of attention. That power can have positive or negative effects. I want to steward my attention well so that folks watching me don’t get sidetracked by negativity. You know when you’re preaching and something disrupts the room? If the preacher looks, so does everyone else. I don’t want folks to see me looking at negativity and being a complainer – better to keep eyes on Jesus – after all – like riding a bike, you go where you look!

  4. Graham English says:

    Julie, excellent scuba story and linking it to critical incidents in Leadersmithing. Switching to self-development in the absence of obvious mentors is a good shift. Probably, one of those threshold concepts that would be critical in leader development. Great stuff!

    If you were to build a list of top 5 skills that you need to hone at this point in the journey, what might they be?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Graham – answering from the book –
      1. Letting Go, letting our Administrator full own certain aspects of communication without my review.
      2. Mood, especially important in my home. My husband and I both work from home offices. I want my mood ‘climate’ to enhance his experience, not detract from it.
      3. Social Media, ugh.
      4. Networking, I want to avoid seeming like a social-climber and have therefore not made the most of past opportunities.
      5. Listening, My tendency is to carry the conversation forward too quickly for others’ comfort. Still working on open-ended and empathetic questioning.
      Thank you for you question that helped me think through some specific action steps.

  5. Nancy Blackman says:

    I appreciated your connection between the high risk/high stakes environment of scuba diving and contentious boardrooms. That was great word imagery!

    As you are navigating new skills without training, how much of Poole’s Resistance Wheel are you facing? And, are there any parts of Poole’s suggestions helpful in your situation?

    What would make it easier for you as you are transitioning so that you don’t feel like you’ve been thrown into the deep end without an oxygen tank?

  6. Julie O'Hara says:

    Hi Nancy, Thanks for directing me to a section of the book I had not read. Some of the denomination leaders have resisted our project due to lack of understanding. That lack is compounded by the many things demanding their attention. I have been able to develop a focused, repeatable message and get it on the lips of the ‘next-level up’ leaders. This strategy is making a communication sandwich that is now beginning to drive momentum among the leadership group that I really need on board to fully execute our project. Thanks for helping me see where an obstacle has been met and overcome!

  7. Noel Liemam says:

    Hi, Julie, thank you for your post, it is very interesting. I have never scuba dive, even though I sometimes described myself as born and raised in the Pacific Blues. Only if I were in Micronesia, I would invite you to come and dive in our beautiful oceans, maybe for some other times. Well to be relevant to this course, I like the way you talked about leadersmithing as apprenticeship and templating. I was an apprenticeship twice. I used to an apprentice for a Southern Oregon company called, Hamilton Construction. I remembered my first day dropped off on the jobsite. There was a lot of noise, a lot of people doing different things at the same time, and I was standing confused. Then the foreman looked at me yelled, “what are you looking at, dig in.” I felt this way after reading Poole. I totally agree that leadership is about not just reading about it but doing it, ‘digging in.’ I mean reading it is important because that is where we also get the templating, but not only that. We also get the ‘templating’ from digging in and learn improvise to what works and what does not work. Thank you for your posting.

  8. Elysse Burns says:

    Julie, I echo the comments above. Your experience as a SCUBA instructor paralleled amazingly with this week’s “Leadersmithing.” I am also intrigued with Poole’s suggestion to intentionally create and practice scenarios that “make our heart beat a little faster.” I plan to do this tomorrow in an effort to renew my residency card. I usually prefer to avoid embarrassment, but I am starting to embrace the idea of just going for it because its good for me.

    What major “Critical Incidents” have surfaced since your start in the project of training pastors? Also, what pleasant, unexpected templates have you been able to utilize while interacting with these pastors?

  9. Akwése Nkemontoh says:

    Julie, I applaud your ability to stay calm in the waters, what a leadership skill that is! I did my dive certification a couple years back and on my last dive was having difficulty equalizing. I tried to push through and ended up in flight/fight/freeze, which is especially NOT good when you’re under the water.

    Anyway, I can relate to the frustration of having no guide or feedback and feeling like you’re in over your head. Reframing is such a powerful tool, and I’m grateful for this reminder as well as happy to hear how this weeks reading offered you that gift.

    A few years back, I read a book ( I’m blanking on the title) that invited leaders to think of God as the senior partner and ourselves as junior partners. I read it during I time I was so desperate for mentorship. I, too, had decided that I guess I just needed to be ” my own Instructor” and let that be okay, but it wasn’t until I heard this invitation to view God as Senior Partner that I realized the Holy Spirit is my instructor, and I never have to be my own. If I feel like Im on my own, it’s because I’ve forgotten who is really in charge and tried to take things into my own hands. That was truly liberating for me. That said, it’s still something I struggle with, but when I can slow down enough to pause and remember God is instructing, I’ll ask “What do you want me to do?” and God always replies, leaving me much more resourced and able to see it as an opportunity for growth rather than just flailing on my own and feeling inadequate lol.

    What are some of those ‘stretch-zone’ situations, where you feel under-resourced for the task at hand that you might invite God to step in as Senior Partner to lead the way?

    • Julie O'Hara says:

      Hi Akwése, Right now I have an element of stoppage because only one person can do the next step needed. I feel I have tried everything so far to make it progress. Thank you for the idea to ask God the question, “What do you want me to do?”

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