Are you unintentionally protecting people from the consequences of their own actions?

The titles is a quote from the book Turn the Ship Around! (L. David Marquet) that resonated with me. It made me think back on the attitude towards growing leadership I personally have.

My phone woke me up at 7.45, and that was the sign something was wrong. I had been training a group of about fifteen people to lead a team of volunteers in youth work, and they had to organise a lot of things themselves. From organising cleaning the place where we stored materials, to entertaining others at noon and preparing self-reflection exercises for groups.

One of the tasks was wake-up service. Every day, they had to wake everyone at the training camp up - about 120 people over 20 rooms. They were to start at 7.20 and end fifteen minutes later. We told them we preferred playful and original ways to wake up, like a small game or an improvised radio show. This was a youth work training camp, after all.

On the very last day, I woke up because of the unoriginal and unplayful sound of my phone alarm, which I always set as a back-up. Groggily, I scanned the WhatsApp group in which the group coordinated. They had forgotten to appoint two people for the last morning’s wake-up service and had not reached an agreement between the few people still awake when they realised this late at night.

I could have taken over. On training camps without prospective team leaders, we did all the wake-up services and other fluff as instructors. I was making a list of fun wake-up calls in my head when I realised this was the perfect learning opportunity for my group. I walked over to their room, told them “you’re late, I want you to wake everyone now, I want them in the dining hall within fifteen minutes.”

Instead of taking over, I allowed them to clean up their own mess. This gave them a sense of ownership: ya break it, ya fix it. During breakfast, I asked them to reflect and report what they had learned to a fellow instructor and me. They were surprisingly insightful and introspective.

I asked them to, as a group, apologise to the one hundred people who they had not woken up, and as a result, had missed their shower and had to eat their breakfast in a rush. The mood was defeated at first that morning. Admitting your mistake to a group of a hundred frustrated people is not a fun thing to do. But they had learned an important lesson: actions carry consequences, leadership carries responsibility.

These are all things you can teach on paper or an a nice PowerPoint, but nothing is better than experiencing it yourself. Experiential teaching had become a favourite of mine, we always applied it during youth work training courses, and I’m now looking for similar methodologies in IT training courses.