Situational Awareness – Multiple, Simultaneous Realities Create the Fabric of the Present

By John Vlismas The path to becoming a SCUBA instructor in the NAUI system has several steps. One critical transition is from the technical knowledge of a practitioner (Master Diver) into leadership (Dive Master). The latter qualification assumes you have a good understanding of the relevant physics, physiology, dive theory and gear and builds a…

By John Vlismas

The path to becoming a SCUBA instructor in the NAUI system has several steps. One critical transition is from the technical knowledge of a practitioner (Master Diver) into leadership (Dive Master). 

The latter qualification assumes you have a good understanding of the relevant physics, physiology, dive theory and gear and builds a capability to lead paying groups of adventure-seekers out to sea. Where high test scores on gas laws and safety procedures are helpful – situational awareness, empathy and the ability to process complexity as it unfolds become the new table stakes. 

“Expertise is one thing. Leadership is a new qualification.” 


Demonstrating capability without situational awareness is a pissing contest that defines winners and losers by definition. This is not leadership. It’s misplaced power.

A Master Diver might help someone kit up, explain the dive profile, point out possible hazards, the importance of the safety stop on the ascent, suggest an entrance and exit strategy based on conditions and revise hand signals meticulously. 

A Dive Master will pay attention as people assemble their gear, assessing levels of bravado, personality type and flag the use of hyperbole (often an attempt to conceal a gap in knowledge or experience). They’ll look for physical strength, signs of volatility, consider size and energy level. Then they’ll add the advice above when appropriate. 

They’ll quiz skippers and divers who’ve just come back from a dive on the most recent visibility, currents, weather and swell size. They’ll synthesise the information with the assessment of the group, use robust conversation to test resilience and re-pair dyads if better combinations present themselves.

On the dive, they have to ramp up their awareness. There are the divers, the ocean conditions, the wildlife, the boat above, the reef/rocks/caves below. It all seems impossibly intricate at first, yet safe dives happen again and again. 

Responsibility for a group of individuals under pressure and far from help is a masterclass in moving parts. Each diver has their own certification level, ego, degree of experience, psychological profile, medical history and fitness. They’ve either been buddied up with a stranger on the beach or came with a partner or friend. These dyads will have dynamics of their own. 

On dives, stress can be high, anxiety is real and many people will conceal such as they think it will be seen as weakness. These nervous peaks need to be identified and dissipated early and often. Panic can be deadly even in shallow water. Sounds like an impossible level of task-loading on the divemaster, right?

The successful divemaster has to have an appreciation for multiple, simultaneous realities. A mentor once reminded me that part of big picture thinking is to “make reality your friend”. If your big picture involves people – you’d have to update that to “make realities your friend”. 


“While facts have undeniable weight, the reality constructed by others, and the aggregate agreed on by groups of us (the operating version) all have validity in the current operating environment.”


If facts were the overriding influencer, a lot of politicians would never get elected. Huge financial value bubbles wouldn’t form. Human sentiment is a significant component of the operating environment, and perhaps we need to work with it, rather than try to rail against it. 

Great leaders allow these realities to show themselves clearly, rather than trying to erase them in favour of the leader’s version. Bill Hicks, a philosophical US comedian famously said “stop teaching kids what should be, teach them what is.” 

I synthesised this model below to explain – The Cultural Web and Contingency relationships (Adapted from Lichtenstein and Dade, 2006 and Johnson and Scholes, 1999)


cultural web and contingency relationships

The Divemaster instinctively understands that Executive Reality (1.2) – a successful, well-governed and safe experience, based on their knowledge and experience is critical and impossible to achieve alone. Everyday Reality (1.1) has less to do with systems, controls and structures, but it exists undeniably. It’s the realm of interpretation, personal filters and dyadic chemistry. While there is possibly rich anecdote and interest here, there are gaps in controls and structures. 

(It is interesting to note that misinformation can exist in both. In Everyday reality, we might call it fake news. In Executive reality, we are seldom brave enough to call out misreporting when we find it. This tangent is for another article.)

While R1.1 and R1.2 have some common factors: a positive, safe experience, no harm, etc. – it’s a tenuous assumption that wanting the same things makes them so. I believe a Master Diver put in charge might, despite their technical knowledge struggle to lead if they do so simply from either realities 1.2 or 1.0. 

Simply using controls and/or common factors is not enough when you’re spread out across a reef, in a current with shifting conditions, variable air consumption rates, etc. It doesn’t matter what you scored on your Master Diver Exam – you can’t be with every diver at every moment to impose your great score. You have to become a hyper-alert conductor where the stakes are life and death.

“The realities constructed/inhabited by the rest of the team, while not metric, are concrete to them, and will guide their behaviour – therefore understanding these is not indulgence by leadership – it is due diligence. “

Leaders in complexity don’t prescribe Reality 2.0. They co-create a set of rules to help govern this shared reality. That’s why I like the word paradigm. A set of rules or patterns that constantly apply. I believe good dive masters instinctively guide groups to building R2’s before every dive. Doing so is not a feel-good motivational move, but a deep strategy for pulling off a highly complex and potentially high-stakes exercise that requires proficiency and also the management of many variables. 

Divers are encouraged to rely on each other in dyads, only alerting the leader if problems are not solvable. Responsibility for orientation to the group and gas supply are also local to each individual. Critically, each diver is assumed to be competent from the outset. Each diver is also reminded that assistance can only be requested or given provided that such is reasonable and rational to the safety of the group. You’ll note that the creation of self-organizing units is encouraged, as is the distribution of risk. 

In my experience, sharing real risk is a meaningful contributor to the creation of 2.0. Shielding team members/assuming they will not cope is a fast track to learned helplessness. Equally, being open and articulate about personal weaknesses as the Divemaster is also a good way to build trust and nurture self-organization. It also triggers a self-interest strategy in each team member that might well increase situational awareness.

I believe great leaders do the same. They create a genuine operating paradigm that includes authentic contributions from the team. It is not a tight set of live-or-die rules based on personal competence and seniority, it is not micromanagement – it’s an environment of patterns, nurtured by a competent person – but not enforced. The great leader won’t tighten their grip as complexity increases, but relax it, sharing the load, relying honestly on the skills of the team, as well as their resilience and resourcefulness. Most of all, when a crisis unfolds – the great leader will share and resolve their own rising panic early and often – articulating it to the team. 

Complexity is much more manageable if the small puzzles that make it up are identified and delegated to a team that feels empowered by a leader who demonstrates trust in the capability of that team. 

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