I witnessed something very interesting a few days ago: a rapid, real-time breakdown in leadership.
The group was being led by one of its usual leaders – a good person by any measure that you can think of, and very much liked. This person, as is their style, was pushing participants pretty hard and asking them to engage in an exercise that challenged them on dimensions of strength, stamina, and balance. Some participants were clearly operating at the limit of what they could handle but everyone was engaged, giving it their best shot, and having fun. Giggling could be heard all around, as participants taunted each other in a good-natured fashion.
And then, things went off the rails.
The group’s leader changed the rules of the game in a way that suddenly raised the difficulty level dramatically. An uncomfortable silence fell on the room. People just stood there, looking at each other. With the leader offering verbal encouragement, some participants tentatively attempted, with their respective partners, the maneuver that was being asked of them.
For some, the exercise was clearly beyond their current physical abilities. They tried once, they tried twice, and quickly gave up. Some participants were able to muster the strength and balance required for the first step in the exercise but quickly got nervous with the perceived physical risk involved in the next step. In hushed voices, some participants started registering their discomfort to their partners:
– “Hey, put me down. I’m not doing this.”
– “I’m not comfortable with this. I’m out.”
Overhearing this, participants who were still on the fence also stopped.
The group’s leader, apparently surprised and disappointed (and perhaps a little miffed), tried to verbally coax participants into complying with their instructions. A general resignation ensued, with participants just standing there and looking away uncomfortably, declining to engage further despite entreaties. Wisely, the leader realized at this point that they had lost control of the situation and that continuing to push would be entirely counterproductive.
It might also have resulted in long-term damage to their leadership.
Between the moment participants were having fun with the previous activity and the moment people just stood there refusing to go along with the leader’s instructions, no more than a few minutes must have gone by. It all happened very quickly.
The leader was able to recover by tacitly acknowledging that they had over-reached. Thankfully, I do not believe any long-term damage was done. Still, there are some very interesting lessons in this, and I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more:
- As a person in authority, you only lead as long as people choose to follow.
- If you push people too hard, too fast, people will stop following. Perhaps they simply can’t follow the instructions; perhaps they decide not to follow them. In either case, the result looks quite similar.
- Building skills, competencies and confidence is a gradual process – one that you can’t just skip over and hope that people will suddenly perform at a completely new level. In the present case, the exercise that that was being asked of the participants was not inherently unreasonable. I have seen people perform it so it can definitely be done. But getting there takes time and practice – something that participants here were simply not given.
- Opinion leaders in a group are extremely important in shaping behaviors and outcomes, whether or not they hold any positional authority. As a leader, you ignore their voices at your peril.
It was not my place to interject, but I think the leader in my story would have benefited from bringing the participants together right there and then, and having a frank discussion with them about what had just happened. For all parties involved, a lot could have been gained from reflecting together on the experience.
It’s hard for people in authority – for anyone – to admit that they misread a situation or adopted a poor course of action. Even with the best of intentions, good people can make bad decisions. If the incident becomes an opportunity to learn and makes the person a better leader in the future, it will have turned out to be a truly priceless opportunity.