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Transformational Leadership Lessons Inside My Octopus Teacher


If you haven’t seen this documentary, watch it. If you have, read this post–then watch it again.


Craig Foster, a documentary filmmaker, takes to the ocean to cope with burn out. He doesn’t set out to do anything at first other than escape and explore. In time, Foster gains tremendous connection and understanding. It’s a wonderful story on the surface. Beneath the waterline, Foster experiences the following opening steps to transformational leadership.


Immerse Yourself -In Their World

Foster makes daily trips to swim in the ocean. What begins as his personal therapy after suffering burn out becomes an end in itself. He keeps returning. Day after day. Over time, Foster evolves from visitor, to explorer, to a community member of the kelp forest he swims beneath.

Far from setting out to study the kelp forest from books or second-hand reports, Foster gains his understanding by being there.

First-hand experience in someone else’s environment transforms us in ways and places that information alone cannot reach.


Observe, Observe, Observe:

Once Foster is literally immersed in the ocean, he sees a whole different world beneath the waves. Initially, he’s not looking for anything in particular when he spots a remarkable tactic by an octopus. Later, while searching for the octopus, he begins noticing clues and patterns that would be invisible to a casual visitor.

When he’s not observing first hand in the water, Foster spends his surface hours mapping the environment and diving into marine biology books to understand what he’s seen. With a curious mind and a passion for understanding, he discovers things about the octopus that he can’t even find in books.

Looking for something can unintentionally draw us into confirmation bias; looking at an environment with fresh eyes lets us see the place and connections within it that we otherwise would have missed.


You Have To Let Go To Get There:

Foster eschews scuba gear and even a wetsuit in frigid waters. He feels that so much gear would put too much of a barrier between him, the environment, and the octopus.

Already a strong swimmer and diver, Foster further acclimates to the water and develops heroic breath holding capacity. He connects to the octopus in her environment by being stripped bare of the attachments most people would consider mandatory in this place. His choice to be so vulnerable is key to how he connects to the octopus -and another part of himself.

Buddhism teaches that attachment is suffering. Experts ranging from Brene Brown to David Kilcullen tell us that path to leading change requires us to let go of some of our protection in order to build real connection and safety.


Take (and Give) Your Time:

Foster goes to the ocean. Every day. For a year. n a world where all the answers could be at our fingertips in a instant, Foster adopts the rhythm of nature–showing up every day, growing a tiny bit each time. The film is an easily digestible bite edited from an enormous endeavor of dedication.

The things we want most –change, understanding, connection– require our dedication to show up every day.



Craig Foster doesn’t set out to lead change, but his journey transforms him. The key to leading deep transformational change is that the leader is also transformed. The leader, the intervener, must seek to learn about the other’s world first hand and connect to those in it. The opening steps in the process transform the leader.

The next steps are not part of My Octopus Teacher, but the transformed leader now has the authentic connection and understanding to facilitate change with “others” who have joined a larger circle that becomes “us”.


Facilitating the deepest changes requires us to be open to being changed.


Please see the film or see it again if it’s been a while.


If you want to foster change in the world, ask yourself:


Where do I need to immerse myself?


What do I need to let go of to get there?



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