[Image description: Photo is of two lounging cats. One looks at the camera, alert, while the other relaxes.]
Throughout high school, I never thought of myself as a leader. I was the quiet, nerdy artist who never could quite keep up with what was going on. I wasn’t often bullied, and I even experienced rare bursts of admiration when classmates watched me draw. But I didn’t think of myself as a leader, and I was not popular. (Cue “Popular” from Wicked.)
During my ninth grade field trip, my teachers tried to push me into leadership by putting me in charge of the rest of the class for a team-building exercise. I stood on the ground while my classmates tried to shuffle their way across a low tightrope between two trees. My job was to tell them when to move, how, and where.
The teachers kept adding restrictions. For example, I was the only one allowed to talk or move without direction. It did not go well. After tipping off the rope for the umpteenth time, my disgruntled classmates asked the teachers to replace me. The next attempt (with a different leader) went a little better, and the class eventually completed the challenge. Was a team built? Did I lead? Did we trust each other more after that? Not really. My teachers meant well in assigning me a directive role; they wanted me to rise to the occasion and gain confidence. Unfortunately, they didn’t set me up for success as a leader. As a ‘team,’ we were unequipped in several ways.
First, the teachers ignored the dynamics of the class; we were all still hormonal, image-conscious teenagers. Some in the class, for better or for worse, had support and experience as leaders. I simply was not one of them. The teachers tried to impose a different dynamic without preparing us all to try it in good faith.
Second, the teachers took away the tools I needed to communicate with the class and make good decisions. I could not read my classmates’ faces. Meanwhile, they were utterly dependent and unable to communicate with or support me. No wonder they got frustrated.
Third, I lacked the desire to lead. Sure, that was related to shyness, perfectionism, and low self-esteem, but trying to force a shy perfectionist to lead confidently by putting them in a situation with no reason to feel confident tends to backfire. Ironically, as the only person allowed to move, I felt paralyzed. The resulting failure reinforced my belief that I wasn’t a leader.
What could we have done differently in that situation? Any number of things might have helped. For example, we didn’t have to do that particular team-building exercise; we could’ve done the “human knot” game, where the team tries to untwist and very link does its part.
The teachers could have asked for volunteers in the first place (I was not ready to be singled out for that particular activity).
When we learned what the challenge was, we could have come up with a strategy or even divided leadership so that people on the ground and on the rope could observe what was happening and make recommendations.
I could have paused the activity and asked for communication and suggestions, or I could have said “I’m not equipped for this; we need to let someone else have a turn.”
My classmates could have handled their frustration better, perhaps stating their feelings and asking what I needed instead of just complaining to the teachers.
The teachers could have made time for us to debrief after the activity, figure out why it was so hard, assure us that it was okay, and get input on what to try for next time.
Shoulda coulda woulda. But thinking through what could have helped us then reminds me that ‘leadership’ is a team sport; no one ‘leads’ in a vacuum.
I’ve had several less unpleasant opportunities to lead since that demoralizing experience. Joining Girl Scouts as a highschooler gave me opportunities to lead in a more conducive setting (yep, I joined Girl Scouts after most people drop out).
I’ve learned about my strengths and weaknesses as a leader with help from friends and mentors; in my senior year of college, one of my college professors said I exemplified “leading from the middle.” With the benefit of experience, that ill-fated highschool exercise has provided a way for me to reflect on how I can set myself, my friends, my teammates, and my partners up for success.
In some cases, I am the designated leader and make firm decisions in that role. Even then, I need the support and input of others and the resilience to acknowledge when something doesn’t work. Most of the time, I share leadership with others on my team and support other leaders as we work to build the dynamics we want, protect our communities, and create spaces for growth and refuge. Leadership is not a one-person show. Instead, leadership is a matter of process and relationship, a team sport in which we all participate.