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A few leadership lessons I was reminded of during an afternoon with Outward Bound

Leadership development and team building programs are full of small-scale physical challenges that require collaboration. Though they’re mostly just simple puzzles that follow similar models, having just participated in another a few weeks ago, I can say there are many lessons worth being reminded of.

Outdoor education nonprofit Outward Bound is one of those groups best known for these corporate training affairs, and LEADERSHIP Philadelphia, one of the older local civic training nonprofits in the country, had me again take part in an afternoon of such activities as part of a program of theirs I’m in. I want to share some of what I left the event thinking about back  on Sept. 18.

I was in middle school in the mid-1990s when I was first introduced to these kinds of games — get your entire team through a spiderweb of ropes with specific limitations, navigate a blindfolded partner through a complicated maze with just words, complete a confusing task as quickly as possible as a team. I’ve done versions of these as a camp counselor, an active undergraduate and most recently in another LEADERSHIP group.

So during this particular afternoon of activities, I wasn’t much surprised by the challenges. I was more aware than ever before of the prompts each of the activities gave me though.

Here are a few thoughts I hope to really internalize:

  • “Be where your feet are”: The day-long training began with a welcome from our host that day at Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Philadelphia Eagles, the NFL team’s president Don Smolenski. He quoted his head coach Chip Kelly a few times and this one was the first that stood out: learn from your mistakes but don’t focus on them; look forward to the next challenge but allow yourself the fun and celebration of the moment; generally be present. I struggle with this mightily.
  • “Habits reflect the mission”: It’s another Kelly quote that can drive company culture. Smolenski mentioned this when I asked him what metric does he use for success — when he took over more than 15 years ago, the Eagles already sold out tickets, so he has also paid attention to how much civic good the franchise can have (their sustainable energy campaign; corporate social responsibility programs and the like)
  • The division of labor must be immediate and precise — One of the challenges was to look at a pattern of blocks for a short period of time (though we didn’t know that at the time) and then to instruct with words our blindfolded teammates to assemble that same block pattern. On the whole we did well with communication but when I stepped up to take the lead, I fell into the trap that I most often fall into. I told my two other non-blindfolded teammates that I would remember the pattern of the blocks so they could focus on instructing our blindfolded teammates. It was a mistake. I am struggling with delegating responsibility at work and need to do more in settings like this too. Later on, when the roles were flipped, I recommended the trio split up a portion of the block pattern so each of them only had to remember a smaller portion of it. That was the right move of delegation and I missed it.
  • Balance between leader and follower — This is a skill I still need work on but I have come so far along through the years. There are some challenges I feel like I can help take a lead and so when there are games I have less strong feelings on, I make extra effort to step back, listen more and trust in my teammates stepping up, which they always do.
  • Humor is a great lubricant for stress — This is my favorite tool and these days are always an important time for me to improve at keeping my natural silliness in check. Outside of the rigor of the office and put in a more casual social environment, the child I once was creeps up, I joke and jab and laugh. Some of it is helpful, it can be disarming to  a new group. I know that. But I also know that I still often lose control and become distracting for a group’s progress. These days are always really important to stretch that.
  • There’s no better relationship building tool for office workers than physical activity — This summer we took our team at Technical.ly on a ropes course. It was great fun but it also put us all in a unique setting with each other. We learned new things about each other and, most importantly, got a whole lot more comfortable with each other. Likewise, our group for this day got much closer in such a short period time.

Lots more to learn from programs like this, even when you’ve done them several times before. I’m thankful for the opportunity.

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