Leadership Lesson from High School Kids

Recently we had an opportunity to give a short leadership workshop to 2 high school engineering classes. The teacher wanted us to help the students understand how to work together since later in the year they will be working in teams. We learned an important lesson ourselves while observing the two groups.

Since we didn’t have much time and since we wanted to give the students some hands-on experience, we decided to facilitate a simple exercise in communication and leadership. This is the kind of thing that sometimes causes adults to roll their collective eyes because it smacks of a “game” and “not real work” but we hoped that the students would find it interesting. The exercise is called “Zoom” and essentially the task is for the group to create a unified story from a set of sequential pictures. Basically, the pictures create one story when put in the correct order. Each person has one picture but he or she cannot show their picture to anyone else. They must communicate with patience and take other’s perspective to succeed.

The classes were held at different times but we gave them identical instructions. One class was larger by 2 people (28-30) but otherwise the conditions were the same. Each group behaved very differently when performing the exercise and created a mini case study on leadership processes.

The first group started to mill around the room, describe their pictures, and get oriented to the task. A pattern of small groups emerged around sub-sequences of pictures as they started to make some local connections. Occasionally, a person would cross from one group to another and make a connection between groups. We started to put some time pressure on the class so as to simulate real-world deadlines and the noise level and activity around the room increased. Eventually, a small group, who thought they were at one end of the sequence, laid their photos face down in what they believed was the correct order. Group by group, others soon followed suit and discussions erupted around the correct sequence to bridge the smaller groups. Many of the conversations were happening in parallel and as a bystander, it often sounded and looked chaotic. When instructed to turn their pictures over, the group got the entire sequence correct and they were quite pleased with their performance.

The second group seemed to start the same way as the first with people milling about and describing their pictures. Perhaps because of the cacophony, or perhaps because they thought they should, two of the students tried to create some order. They shouted “we need to get organized!” and “who as a picture of _____?” Many of the other students seemed to be either intentionally ignoring the two self-appointed leaders or they were too engaged in their own conversation to notice. One student seemed to assert himself as the primary leader with the second helping out as necessary. The leaders bounced between the groups trying to understand the whole sequence and get everyone aligned.  Again, most of the other students reacted with ambivalence. As we tuned up the time pressure, the two turned up their volume and speed. It was clear the pressure was making the leaders work harder and increasing their drive to perform but the others in the group reacted less. As they started to place their pictures face down, one of the two began to direct everyone. Most of the group became silent as they waited for instructions and questions from the leader. The process hit a snag when there was a disagreement between the two leaders around who had the next sequential picture. During this discussion, the rest of the group watched and only a few made suggestions or comments. Eventually, the group had all pictures laid down in what they believed was the correct order. When they turned them face up, there were several mistakes and most notably starting at the previous disagreement point. The student’s didn’t seem to happy about their performance.

I don’t want to make too much of an anecdotal story, however the difference in patterns we noticed between the groups was both striking and familiar. In the first group, leadership was local and emerged as needed between group members. As one person made a suggestion or asked a question, others in the sub-group followed for the moment. The overall process seemed disorganized and incoherent from an outsider’s point of view as much communication and coordination was occurring in parallel. In the second group, leadership was global as the two exerted control over the whole. They didn’t always obtain complete control to which they lamented in a debrief afterwards. From an outsider’s point of view the process was easier to understand since much of it was happening sequentially. Though it was obvious when people were unproductively waiting for instructions. As for performance, well in this case at least, the messy, confusing and emergent leadership produced better results than did the controlled, organized and neat single leader process.

Though this gives us some ideas for a controlled experiment, this example showed me one mechanism that might contribute to difference in performance between local emergent leadership and global centralized leadership. Emergent leadership allows for parallel meaning making, problem solving, and knowledge transfer much faster than does a well-controlled single leader process. I was struck by how most of the students gravitated to the emergent leader process without any prompting or encouragement. When, I wonder, do we teach that out of them?

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