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Sharks in the Water: Is Your Dorsal Fin Showing?

Years ago, I remember reading one of the funniest Gary Larsen cartoons ever. A school of sharks are swimming towards the shore and people are running away from the beach. The lead shark, looking back at his followers, says: “Well, somehow they knew we were – whoa! Our dorsal fins are sticking out! I wonder how many times that’s screwed things up?”

In the work I do with leadership teams, I often run a Behavioural Styles experiential exercise. This exercise helps everyone on the team see each other’s styles at work and begin to connect traits with behaviours. Usually, a person’s dominant behaviours are already evident to others in the office (it’s your dorsal fin!), but most people don’t see the underlying personality traits that are driving the behaviours. Developing this deeper level of understanding is what the exercise is all about.

At this point in time, I know that most of you are automatically thinking about negative types of behaviour. Why? Because we often identify most strongly with behaviours that impact us negatively and automatically assume that these negative behaviors are the focus of the exercise.

Nothing could be further from the truth! Yes, some of the behavioural traits can be negative but all Behavioural Styles have a positive ability to be part of a team and to lead a team. The key to the exercise is to understand what your most powerful impulse is – your “go-to” style. Where are you most comfortable performing?

Once we have figured out each person’s default style, I challenge participants to look at where their style goes when 1) things are going really well, and 2) when they are under stress.

What are the felt emotions that cause me to move from one quadrant to another? What are the underlying personality traits that form my “normal” style? How can I leverage that strength in my leadership style and how can I leverage it to be a good team player on my senior leadership team?

Sharks in the Water: Is Your Dorsal Fin Showing?

Like all exercises in building leadership capabilities, it’s important to identify how to do more of the things that work well in your culture. Then the most critical element of the exercise kicks in: when I go into a meeting, whether a one-on-one or a team meeting, am I intentional in using the style that is best for the situation at hand?


The best leaders can migrate around all behavioural quadrants as the situation merits. They are also the most aware of their own comfort zone and the impact it has on others.

The ultimate question for everyone is: what is my dorsal fin and what is it telling others about me?

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Written by Dwight Lacey

Dwight Lacey

Dwight is the President at Workplace Engagement Insights. He leads Workplace Engagement Insights with a clear understanding of the latest employee engagement research, survey best practices, and leadership styles that create successful businesses.

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