Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Midweek Musing: Grad School Learning Part Two

This May, I participated in a GradSchool professional and personal development course, run by the University of Edinburgh's Institute for Academic Development. In a series of four midweek musings, I reflect on some of the things I learned those three days.



Part Two: Being a Leader. 


I mentioned last week some of the activities that occupied us over the three days of the GradSchool. The first of the activities was a 'marshmallow challenge': with a handful of dried spaghetti, some rope, a yard of masking tape and limited time, create the tallest structure on which to balance the marshmallow.

Our working together was a disaster. We'd just met, so of course it was going to be, and in part, that's the point. We talked all at once, or in twos or threes, or just got on with our own ideas individually. Occasionally we stopped, listened to one person, but never quite managed to form a cohesive approach to the task.

Our tower fell over.

After each activity over the course we withdrew into our tutor groups for review. I found myself identifying something about myself as a leader I had not quite articulated or addressed before. I had observed a reluctance to take charge, to 'lead' the group, during that first challenge. Did I not want to put myself forward? Why not?

So I named this observation, and our tutor said I'd have plenty of opportunities to play, experiment with stepping forward and holding back, in those activities on day two.

As we approached the task of forming a perfect square inside that tangled rope, I felt I didn't quite know what was going on. Of course, we had been talking over one another, and I couldn't follow the threads of conversation. I also couldn't see a way to do this myself, so wasn't contributing to the conversation at all.

For this one, then, I let go and trusted others who seemed to have a clear plan. I went where I was told, listened and gave information when required, and was pretty pleased when we took off our blindfolds to reveal a pretty near perfect square!

Again we talked over one another in the time we had for planning our approach to the herding of blindfolded sheep into a pen by a person who could communicate only with a whistle. This time, I stepped in, not to tell us what to do, but to ask us to be focussed on listening to the instructions of the 'shepherd', for it seemed most efficient to have her decide what whistle patterns she would use for what commands. With a little fence hopping from one or two, a false start here and there, we got every sheep into the pen.

Oh, the final activity over by Arthur's Seat near did my head in. Two pairs working independently, not listening to one another, others so baffled and excluded that they merely stood and watched. Once we were allowed to talk again, I took charge. I asked each of the pairs to describe their plan, stopped people forging ahead without listening, and somehow we managed to swap the 'atomic' marbles from one container to another with all those constraints and only causing a minor nuclear spill.
The others identified the importance of my action in that activity for our success.

Later in the day, we had an activity that required making a presentation. One of the team suggested we should do a drama, and that I should direct us. The chaotic multiple conversations going on at once meant that in the end, with time running out, I took the group's invitation to do this, pulled in two of the group who wanted practice standing up before groups and speaking, and wrote a little drama. During the other presentations I realised we also needed to summarise the background, which I had not heard among all the chaos. So I recalled the conversations we'd had, the information the team had compiled, and drew on their work to give the précis on the fly.

The idea for our final presentation, which I mentioned last week, was mine initially, and it grabbed the imaginations of the group well enough that they took it, adapted it, and moulded it into our skit. I think we went a bit long, but we communicated effectively.


I began this course thinking I knew who I was as a leader. I am a pioneer, I am collaborative, I enable others. Perhaps it had been some time since I was in this kind of team setting, with no designated roles for each of us. So I had to find my place, and negotiate with others who would lead, and when. I haven't mentioned the times we delegated responsibilities well because of someone's expertise or interest, or my gradual dawning that one team member's pulling back from the group might have been her own experiment in listening, pausing, before acting.

With every new set of relationships, whatever they might be, comes a little chaos, negotiation, and discomfort, while we work out how to be who we are with these people, while encouraging them to be who they are with you.

So I learnt again how to be the vision caster, the collaborator drawing others in, the enabler bringing others forward to participate and contribute and grow. And I want to remember each of these moments for what they taught me about how to lead by following, by listening, by speaking, and by directing.


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