Easkey Britton is an internationally renowned professional surfer, artist, scientist and explorer from Ireland. Her parents taught her to surf when she was four years old and her life has revolved around the ocean ever since. She pioneered women’s big-wave surfing in Ireland as the first woman to surf Aileens at the Cliffs of Moher and Mullaghmore, where her performances have earned her international recognition including a prestigious Global WSL Big Wave nomination. Britton is a five-time Irish national surf champion and holds a Ph.D. in Marine Environment and Society, but her real work lies in promoting a healthy relationship between people and the sea by using her passion for the ocean to jump-start social change.
Her ground-breaking journey to Iran in 2013 introduced the sport of surfing to women and local communities and is featured in the award-winning documentary film, “Into the Sea”. Easkey has co-organised and facilitated international gatherings around the world promoting social change and leadership including the world’s first global Surf + Social Good Summit in Indonesia, 2015. Named an ‘Agent of Change’ by Surfer magazine in their special Ocean Edition, surfing is Easkey’s active metaphor for life. An inspirational public speaker, her work and unique connection to the ocean led her to being asked to talk at TEDx Dublin. Currently, a post-doctoral research fellow at NUI Galway, Britton co-leads the interdisciplinary NEAR-Health work package on nature-based solutions: a framework to use coastal blue space to restore health and wellbeing. In 2017, she founded Like Water, a platform to explore innovative ways to reconnect with who we are, our environment and each other, through water.
Can leadership be taught? If so, how?
Yes! I used to feel uncomfortable with the word leadership or calling myself a leader. Yet, I’ve always felt comfortable with stepping out of my comfort zone and into the unknown even if I rarely felt certain of the outcome or where I might end up. It wasn’t until I started a creative leadership programme with THNK that I felt able to more fully own my leadership skills. For me, I think courage is one of the most important qualities. That realisation that there is something more important on the other side of fear. That curiosity and desire to embrace the unknown, to go to the edge and lean into fear is a powerful and important leadership skill I’ve learned from surfing. It’s the kind of courage that embraces vulnerability, and the art of letting go.
What do you think is the difference between management and leadership?
Leadership requires the ability to drive break-through change as well as the ability to step back and lead from behind – to create and hold space for others, to take risks and not try to control the outcome. That’s very often what leads to new insights and innovation. This kind of leadership allows others to step into their own. A good leader learns through an openness and willingness to see in new and different ways and notice the patterns emerging without forcing the direction of change. It’s not unlike trying to catch a wave as a surfer – scanning the horizon, tuning in with all my senses, being at ease in a constantly changing environment, preparing to be in position to meet the wave at the right moment, paddling hard and breathing deeply, and the ability to let go and find flow, moving with the wave, not resisting it.
The world around us is changing faster than at any time in human history and we need more leaders to emerge. How do we make this happen?
Breathe. Seriously. When it all feels like it’s moving too fast, we just need to breathe – deep down into our belly. That’s how I’m immediately able to self-connect. If we can better self-connect, breathe, be fully present, then we are less likely to react out of fear to situations that are happening around us that might otherwise feel overwhelming. If we could begin by learning how to breathe properly as a core part of early development and education all the way through to our last breath I think our experience of the world around us would be transformed. And that’s just the beginning. We need to create spaces of possibility, to be able to imagine, wonder, explore – spaces that foster greater creativity and connection rather than competitiveness and performance (I find these are best discovered outdoors, in nature). We need more open and honest conversations that include a diversity of voices. That also means a greater willingness to embrace our shadow. Those emotions or feelings we’d rather suppress, our ‘failings’ and fears, not just the shiny moments.
What is the one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?
The need to always be ‘on’. That constant drive to create change, or make a difference, often leads to burn-out. For me, I noticed I was going through a pattern where I’d reach the mid-point of each year (around June) and my physical and emotional health would start to crash and burn, because I’d been in ‘doing’ mode constantly all year. To break the pattern I began to track the moments in my life when I felt most alive and full of energy, and what were those moments when I was left feeling drained or exhausted. Slowly, I’ve come to understand the importance of cycles. We all have them, men and women. Because we’re living beings we’re influenced by our environment and are affected by the cycles of night and day, the moon, the seasons… As women, we are gifted with an internal cycle – if we’d only been taught to better listen to our bodies. Our body tells us when it’s time to act and when it’s time to rest. I’m beginning to develop a greater awareness of my menstrual cycle in just this last year, and it has had a profound effect on my work-life balance and energy levels. It helps me understand my own inner ebb and flow, the high cost of always being ‘on’ in a society that rewards ‘being busy’, and the equally important need for stillness and reflection.
What advice would you give to someone dealing with a high-pressure situation in their life or work?
(see previous two answers above!)
What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
Like Water’s blog series, Women Who Run with the Waves
Into the Sea
Wavemaker Collective – leadership retreat in Portugal 10-14th May 2018, where social innovation and creativity meet the sea, THNK School of Creative Leadership – a school for innovative leaders from around the world, Move Like Water – women’s retreat in Ireland, 8-10th June 2018, I Am Water – ocean adventures with free-diver and conservationist, Hanli Prinsloo