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Posted on 30 July 2018 by Robert Gormley

In my previous blog, I shared my first lesson learned while chaperoning 4th graders on a week-long school field trip - the importance of using emotional intelligence to connect with your product team in order to norm and perform. In this blog, I’ll address the second lesson I learned: you don’t always have to be “on” to be a leader or expert.

There are certain professions that come with the burden of expectation that you are an expert in everything you do and that you are always on - doctors, teachers, judges, and Chief Essentialist of Continuous Quality. When I was a teacher, regardless of the situation, I felt like I always had to be “on” and that my students expected me to have all the answers. As I’ve moved up in my career in IT, especially as a consultant, I’ve felt that same level of pressure to always be right, have the answers, and know everything. To combat this burden, I’ve spent a lot of time observing others as they have dealt with this same pressure. I had a strong suspicion that the week-long school field trip would give me plenty of opportunity to observe and learn from people dealing with this burden of expectation.

As the first day zipped by, the teachers and adult chaperones gathered for the first evening meeting. It was clear that some adults struggled with the idea of always being “on” in front of the students during the various situations from the day. It’s difficult to feel like everything you do is being scrutinized by the students whether it’s the body language you use, the words you say, the words you don’t say, or even the way you look at someone. Naturally, the teachers had a bit of an advantage, but they were also navigating unchartered waters. At school, teachers have built in breaks during the day, and when the school day ends they can unwind. When you are part of an overnight trip, your normal day is extended by hours and you’re dealing with situations you don’t have to deal with in school. What’s more, the students are having to deal with each other for much longer periods of time which typically leads to strange behaviors and situations.

After the meeting, I played back some of the observations the teachers and chaperones had made about the challenge of being “on” all day. Their thoughts and feelings mirror many of my experiences when I’m working with clients or when I’m answering questions at a speaking engagement - always be there with the right answer and don’t ever show signs of weakness or fear.  I then decided my goal for the trip was to be “on” all the time, so the kids knew how great a leader I am. To keep with this goal, on day two I completed a two-story climbing wall blindfolded. As I climbed further up, I quickly became more nervous and uneasy, but worked hard to show zero signs of hesitation. Later, when the kids dissected owl pellets, I mimicked skills of a Biologist even though I’ve never been all that great in science. Don’t even get me started on my dreamcatcher, the Ojibwe would have been proud.

The funny thing was, the more I tried to be on, to be an expert, the less I felt like I was making any kind of difference with my students. It wasn’t until we went to the ropes course that I learned I didn’t need to be on to make a difference, or be a great leader.

Like many people, I’ve never liked heights and never really felt super coordinated on my feet. What could be worse than a ropes course for a person like me? Oh yeah, the naturalists asked the chaperones to go first and show the students how fun the ropes course could be. Long story short, I gritted my teeth and made it all the way around (my first time ever) with a smile, all the while trying to avoid a small panic attack while 30 feet above ground standing on three-inch wide rope. As we neared the end of this activity, Mrs. Camwell (name changed to protect the innocent J) started her trip around the course. She methodically took her time as she approached the end of course, emotions flooding out of her with every step. As the group gathered to summarize the activity, Mrs. Camwell teared up as she shared how much completing the course meant to her because of her intense fear of heights and the unknown; the group responded with cheers and an enormous group hug. Mrs. Camwell had let her wall down and instead of seeing her as less of a leader (or expert), the kids reacted with admiration and support.

Recently, a client approached me with an urgent request for help on his project. Not only did he need a lot of help, but he wanted it all complete by the end of August. I wasn’t sure exactly how to help and if we could get it done in time. Instead of just turning “it” on and going into Superhero mode as the client would’ve expected, I started with basic questions around goals. I had to admit to myself that I did not have all of the answers, and that was okay. As we talked through the current situation and I learned more, I was able to show the client that rushing to solve this present problem wasn’t going to solve their long-term needs. Instead of focusing on pushing the team to try and achieve the impossible, we decided on smaller, more achievable goals that would have huge benefits for the project further down the road. My approach to this situation was significantly different than anything before with this client, but I was able to use my leadership and expertise to find a better solution for all parties involved. Turns out, not turning “it” on was the best thing I could have done for the client.

Every day I work to understand and remember you don’t always have to be “on” to be a leader or expert. When I think of this concept, I immediately relive that memory of Mrs. Camwell on the ropes course. Remembering how she conquered her fears, accepted the unknown, and learned there is positivity in not always being “on” was inspiring; I intentionally apply these lessons to work each and every day. She made me realize that I don’t have to know everything or do everything to be a leader or to add value to my clients. When I’m working with a product team, I encourage the team to be okay with not knowing everything up front, that the process of working as a team will lead us to the right answers when we need them.