In the first two installments of my blog about what I’ve learned from 4th graders, I talked about the importance of emotional intelligence and how freeing and how effective it can be for leaders to not always “be on.” In this installment, I’ll be discussing how participating and getting your hands dirty from time to time can help leaders develop and drive their teams to find practical solutions. In the end, the benefits reaped from participating far outweigh the couple hours spent away from your “day job.”

Lesson 3 of 5: Participation is Not Optional

As far back as first grade, I can remember my teachers telling me that “participation was not optional” and I always had to be part of the group. For an adopted Korean kid who barely knew how to speak English, it was a daunting task. As I’ve progressed through life, I’m grateful my teachers always pushed me to participate because I’ve walked away from those experiences with new insights and better ways of dealing with challenges.

By day three of my week at Wolf Ridge, I had discovered that emotional intelligence and being one of the “kids” could only get me so far with 4th graders. I needed something else to really connect with the kids and gain the “trusted advisor” status needed to be a great chaperone. My third “ah ha” moment came courtesy of Ojibwe dreamcatchers. My kids and I were in a class to learn how to make dreamcatchers and while it seemed straightforward after the demo, getting the dreamcatcher started was a downright challenge. At first, I made suggestions to the kids about what they needed to try and how they might solve their challenges, but nothing I suggested made any sense to them. Naturally, I decided to try making a dreamcatcher myself – I mean, how hard could it be? The minute I picked up the birch wood and tried to bend it, I realized that nothing I had said to my kids to that point would have helped. Bending the birch wood and making it pliable for a tear shape was extremely difficult. Too much force and the wood would break, but not enough force and the shape would not stick! Why did I think simply talking through this process would have helped my kids? After about five minutes of softly bending and smoothing out my birch wood, I finally got the hang of it. At that point, I was able to use my experience to help my kids with their dreamcatchers.

When I returned to the office the following week, I asked myself, “How often do I simply reply to a question without truly understanding the context of the situation? Have my answers to my colleagues or even my clients been as difficult to understand as the direction I provided while making dreamcatchers?” That’s when I realized I needed to get back to some basics and do a little more “digging in.” When there’s a concern about a product team’s velocity, it’s far easier to ask simple questions and respond to those questions than it is to go meet with the product team and observe what they’re doing. By participating in the product team’s day-to-day activities, it’s easier to understand the nuances of the issue of velocity. When you have a complete understanding of those nuances, coming up with a solution is much simpler and your team will appreciate that you’ve walked in their shoes to develop the most practical solution.

As leaders, our days are filled with important tasks, meetings, problem solving, decision-making, and it’s easy to forget how valuable participation can be. The next time that you are faced with an issue, try stepping into the problem and seeing if you can’t solve it from within. I guarantee by digging in, you can get to the most practical solution and your team will appreciate the engagement. Oh, and if you’re looking for a neat (and tricky) team building exercise, I highly recommend making Ojibwe dreamcatchers!