Please… Swim Between the Flags

It’s about to be summer in Australia, and being an island continent, there are always plenty of announcements, radio ads, and television commercials about being careful around the water.   And it’s no joke: the National Coastal Safety Report 2015* showed that of the 102 coastal drowning deaths in Australia, 56% of these occurred at or near the beach.

Australians have to be serious around all types of water, and especially when swimming in the ocean.  I grew up swimming in the North Atlantic, which has an undertow, but swimming in Aussie currents is totally different.  Getting caught in a “rip”, or a riptide, can be a fatal situation.  Tides can form in opposing directions, which causes a violent disturbance in the water.  If you’ve grown up never having experienced this, it’s difficult to understand the force that the waves can exert.

Numerous strategies have been implemented over the years, including setting up Surf Life Saving Australia.  This amazing organisation ( has over 165,000 members and 311 Surf Life Saving clubs across Australia.  As a not-for-profit organisation, it exists on community donations and volunteers.  Volunteers are first trained, and then rostered to complete surf patrols to cover targeted beaches across Australia’s more than 25,700 kilometres (15,970 miles) of coastline.

As a result, the beaches that are patrolled by SLSA have a visual system to warn swimmers, surfers and divers about the conditions of the day.   The most crucial flags to be aware of are the red and yellow flags**; these are posted to designate exactly where on the beach swimmers can safely and confidently enter the water.  These flags display an area that the professional lifesavers are observing, and that means that if you get into trouble, they can use a variety of rescue tactics and equipment to help.  On some days, this area is quite wide; on others, when dangerous currents form, the gap between the flags can be quite narrow.

The caution to “Swim between the flags” also has lessons for the corporate world.  Organisational values, Compliance training, and new roles like that of a Chief Ethics Officer provide guidelines about how to do, what we do.  Support systems like whistle-blower hotlines and toll-free phone numbers ensure that everyone has access to call out organisational behaviour that isn’t ideal, whether that’s bullying, not leading in an inclusive manner, or downright unethical behaviour.  Every day in every company, workers and leaders across all divisions make decisions about how and in what way they will accomplish work, increase productivity, cut costs, contribute to customer satisfaction (NPS), and deliver profit to shareholders.

In today’s VUCA and disruptive world of work, it’s more important than ever to be agile, to be resilient, and to be empowered.  It’s critical to take action to ensure that the work that we do is accompanied by a demonstration of “living the values” and the integrity that’s implied.  Leading companies are already taking this more seriously: hiring people who align to their values, and then teaching them whatever industry knowledge or operational skill development is needed.  If the values espoused by the company where you work do not resonate with you, I implore you: find a different job!  But for those of us who are daily, weekly, monthly delivering results, executing strategy, and finding new ways to increase productivity, please: swim between the flags.




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