In the early 90’s when I was a facilitator for an outdoor education company, I had the opportunity to work with a group of business leaders and elected officials from the state of Virginia. Except for the alligator in the final event, for the most part, it was your standard ropes course and outdoor team-building activities.
In the final event, the participants were broken up into four teams, each with an identical set of materials to draw upon for the purpose of building a boat, launching it into the Rivanna river, paddling to the other side, and rescuing an alligator. The teams knew about the event all day and did their best to manage their anxiety, but not until they got to the shore did they begin to grasp what was really in store for them.
Although the alligator was actually inflatable, river was real, and the team’s building materials consisted of
- A one-person kayak, open, with no spray-skirt
- Two 50-gallon plastic drums
- Three 30 gallon drums
- A step-ladder
- About 20 pieces of nylon rope, maybe 12′ long each
- Life-jackets, paddles, and helmets for all 12 people on the team
- An inflatable beach-ball
- Two 8′ long 1″ round wooden dowels
- An aluminum beach chair
- 4-6 pieces of 2×4 lumber, maybe 6′ long
and a handful of other materials of little value to a boat.
Now here’s where Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In comes into play. In addition to constructing a sea-worthy craft capable of holding the entire team, they also had to create a flag for the front of the boat to identify the teams on video. In all four teams, the women were largely outnumbered by the men, and in every single team, the task of making the flag was either delegated or jumped at by the women. My team, however, had a women with no interest at all in making a flag, and instead wanted to help build the boat.
Mind you, there is absolutely nothing “standard” about how to make a boat with the materials above. There was more than enough displacement to keep 12 people afloat, but the real trick was in the communication, decision-making, and teamwork required to assemble it in a way that would withstand the trip across the mild current of the river, maybe 30′ across, and 8-12′ deep in the middle.
This woman on my team wanted to be a fully-participating member of the team, including decisions and construction. However, two of the men had US Navy experience, dominated the discussion from a position of “expertise,” and thwarted any and all efforts by this woman to help out. When it came to tying knots, she said “teach me the knot, and I’ll tie them too.” She was met with a sexist remark not worthy of repeating all these years later.
What amazed me were three things. First was the amount of effort and tenacity that woman had to stick in there, continuing to look for a way to be a fully participating and contributing member of the team. Second was the amount of resistance she faced, not just from the self-appointed leaders, but from the other males who sat by and did nothing to assist this woman through their silence. And finally, though this was least surprising, was that after a time, she had been beaten down and all but resigned from the team. She placed herself in an observer role with the other woman who had now finished the flag, both of whom stood watching in amazement at the monstrosity being constructed.
By the time their craft was ready for launch, all three of the other teams had already completed the task, victoriously returned to dry land, and were sitting in their own groups debriefing the activity. When my team launched, everybody knew something was about to happen because every one of the facilitators from the other team, including myself, walked out into the middle of the river for the purpose of “supporting” (fishing out) the participants should anything go wrong. One did not need to be a naval engineer to see that this team was an accident just waiting to happen.
Sure enough, they got maybe 5′ from the shore, a gentle current caught the front of their boat and every single piece of their rigging came loose, dumping the entire lot of them into the water. The temperature was plenty warm, so that was not an issue, but they were utterly demoralized. However, their task was not over… they still had to return to shore, reconstruct their craft, and try again.
At this point, the “leaders” from the first attempt were no longer held in such high esteem, and the team realized that they actually had no skill or expertise whatsoever for the task at hand. They still thought it was about building a boat. Yet when they began anew, and both women were now available to help, the rest of the team was still no more receptive to their aid than before, although they rejected it with slightly less colorful language than the sailors before.
The leading woman now physically walked away from the group in tears, and as a facilitator, I had to intervene. Not yet with the team, but with this other woman as a fellow human being who was just thwarted and twice ostracized by her team.
I asked her what she did – what leadership role it was that had brought her here to this event. I don’t recall her answer, other than that she was responsible for well over 100 people below her. So I asked her, with that many people, does she contribute by going down into the trenches and doing the work of the line-workers?
“No, of course not,” she told me. Instead, her strength and contribution came from being an effective leader and communicator.
Then I asked, “So then what role do you want to play with this team, here?”
“Well, I had wanted to help build the boat, but I don’t know the first thing about boats, and they made sure I knew it.”
“And after the fiasco the team just had, do you think THEY know anything about boats?”
“Well, apparently not,” she began to laugh.
“So then what role might you play that would actually be of greatest service to this team?”
She paused for a long while, then began to smile. “Thank you,” she said. “I don’t have to know how to build a boat… I just need to do what I do best – lead.”
With that, she shook herself off, returned to the rest of the team who were busily tying things together, and interrupted them with a kinder but stronger personal authority than the team had thus far seen. She asked everybody to just put down their materials, slow down, and TALK about their plan. She readily admitted not knowing the first thing about boats, but that she did know that unless they all came together with a plan and agreed on it, that they were going to have a repeat dunking. She said that she didn’t even care what the plan was – but by golly, they were going to come up with one and act upon it before wasting another hour building a hodgepodge contraption that nobody believed in.
At that point, she shut up. She was standing tall, clear in her conviction, and completely silent, as was the rest of team for maybe 30 seconds. Then one of the men said “She’s right. Let’s think it through together.”
The details from then on are many, but the main point is that they built a boat in less than half the time as before, and it was was clearly superior to their initial effort. They all went out on this new craft with confidence and rescued their “Rare Red Rivanna Alligator.” I was the only staff in the water this time, more out of responsibility than concern at that point, and the team was victorious.
The team had an incredible debrief about what happened the first time, what they learned, and what was different the second time. They did not credit “a better boat,” but rather a “better team.”
At that point, the day’s event was coming to a close and all participants were heading back to the lodge for dinner. The woman in this story then thanked me for reconnecting her to her core strengths, and asked me for a favor.
“Can I keep the alligator,” she asked?
Lean in to Leadership.