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How (not) to navigate a minefield: A lesson from HPDL

This report comes from a participant in this year’s High Potential Diverse Leaders (HPDL) program, a leadership development series for those who aim to make a lifelong impact on the sector, presented by GCN in partnership with The American Express Foundation and MailChimp. The 38 members of the 2018 program, currently underway, will be joining an HPDL alumni network of more than 140.

I believe that I can safely declare myself to be the “senior class member” of the 2018 High Potential Diverse Leaders Cohort. I’m also proud to consider myself a “poster child for lifelong learning” – in 2017, I completed five Nonprofit University certificate programs, and participated in Momentum: Westside. But what may have started off my career development journey was one of the first comments I received from a supervisor: “You can’t expect me to spoon-feed you what you need to succeed.”

What I considered then, and what I still believe now, is that having a set of clear guidelines and expectations, and communicating it to every member of a team, is fundamental to the success of any endeavor.

In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, author Malcolm Gladwell explores the “adaptive unconscious,” mental processes that work rapidly and automatically from relatively little information. Gladwell considers both its strengths, such as expert judgment, and its pitfalls, such as stereotyping. Because this intuitive judgment is developed by experience, training, and knowledge, Gladwell argues that spontaneous decisions are often as good as, or even better than, carefully planned and considered ones. However, he also notes that this ability can be corrupted by personal likes and dislikes, prejudices, and biases – many unconscious. The challenge, he says, is to sift through and focus on only the most critical information.

Having a set of clear guidelines and expectations, and communicating it to every member of a team, is fundamental to the success of any endeavor.

At the risk of sounding a bit self-serving – which is not my intention – my point is to explain my failure in the “minefield” exercise, a team-building game in the HPDL session titled “Managing Others, Up and Down the Chain of Command.” Though some colleagues might have blamed that failure on age, the real problem lay elsewhere: In an easy-to-fix “wardrobe malfunction.”

As someone who wants to “get in where I can fit in,” I decided to wear clothing similar to other participants: I donned a pair of baggy jeans for the session in which the minefield exercise happened to occur. In this exercise, we were divided into teams to conduct a blindfolded relay race where the goal is to avoid touching obstacles on the floor – like cones or toys – with guidance from our teammates, who shout directions from the sidelines. When it was my turn to navigate the race, the legs of my baggy jeans kept touching the “mines,” which meant I had to start over at the beginning. As a result, I ran out of time before completing the exercise.  

My reason for bringing this to light is that a simple communication could have led me to complete the exercise. To be sure, I never asked why I wasn’t making it through the minefield, but none of the members of my team said anything about the pants “flair” until after time ran out. With a clue from my colleagues, I could have immediately corrected the problem by tucking my trouser legs into my socks, or rolling them up.

I must hasten to add that this is not an attempt to “throw shade” on any of my colleagues – as Gladwell points out, quick decisions are influenced by largely unconscious processes. Indeed, those who noticed the true problem may have stayed silent with the best of intentions: because their intuitive judgement told them that drawing attention to my clothes might have constituted “throwing shade” on me.

But when we lead, we must look further than the individuals we lead: We must see the environment around us, clearly and in full, and guide our team through it accordingly. That’s the message I take from this exercise, one I believe is a strong and necessary counterpoint to that long-ago piece of advice that has stuck with me. Yes, leaders cannot “spoon-feed” those who follow them, but they must also illuminate the areas that their people might be “blind” to.

Wendell C. Love is a member of the board at Central Community Services, Inc.(CCSI)

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