As an MBA student, I once found myself on a “ropes course” with a couple dozen other students from a leadership class. It’s been a long time, but as I recall, this outdoor adventure was supposed to teach us something about leadership styles. We were placed into groups of five or six and assigned specific tasks that involved overcoming obstacles in a forest, much like summer camp. The caveat was that those of us who had been identified as extroverted, thinking types on a popular personality profile were required to keep silent during the exercise unless specifically called upon for input. Instead of offering suggestions, we were supposed to be good listeners and let the more introverted, feeling types have greater opportunities to discuss the challenges and devise our plans for success. You can imagine how this played out…
As an extrovert who leans toward logical vs. magical thinking, within about 30 minutes, I wanted to kill myself and some of the other more “sensitive” folks. We stood at the base of an imposing wall in the woods for what seemed like eternity while nice people politely discussed possible ways that our team could collectively scale the barrier. I witnessed various unsuccessful attempts at boosting and human pyramid building and checked my watch. Tick tock. We were going to lose this challenge and I don’t like to lose.
What really galled me was that we had a U.S. Marine on our team. But he’d been identified as an extrovert and remained silent. I could not understand why team members weren’t asking for his advice. I assumed he’d done this kind of thing before and could easily lead us to victory. But, NO! Maybe the quiet types relished holding the mute button on the loud mouths.
Finally, after many failed slides down the wall like heartbreaking kids in gym class who need a hug, somebody asked the Marine for input. And I could have fainted dead away at his response. Something like, “You’re on the right track. Keep thinking it through.” What!? Had his crew cut nicked important grey matter? Was our class about to devolve into some CSI laboratory for science majors? Or maybe we were being videotaped for a psychology course on rage. None of the above. We made it over the wall and finished the course. I can’t remember who “won.”
A decade later, I’m beginning to understand the value of this exercise. My husband, God bless him, often requires extra time to analyze any given situation before making a decision. This includes ordering lunch at McDonald’s where the menu hasn’t changed in like 30 years! How does this require analysis? I take a deep breath and calmly chant my order: chicken nuggets, small fry, diet coke.
And our son, a rather shy introvert, will agree to most anything we say. To the point where I’m actually encouraging him to contradict me, to stand his ground, to speak up and defend his opinions because I worry he’ll be trampled by tyrants (ahem, opinionated extroverts) like me in the real world.
And as for that Marine and his comment, he displayed great wisdom. He realized something I didn’t– that he wasn’t on a battlefield that day. No lives were hanging in the balance and “winning” wasn’t the goal. I’ve come to understand the importance of repeated failure as an important learning device. And that leaders won’t be leaders for long if the team hates your guts. This means everyone must be heard and sometimes it takes longer for others to assemble and articulate their thoughts. And that’s okay.
But one thing I did understand back then and teach my kiddos every day, if an expert is available, ASK FOR HELP!