I’m a Girl Scout leader. They’re called Brownies here in the UK, and the girls are between seven and ten years old. I help run the activities the girls take part in.
Last weekend, our Brownies went on an adventure day to a local woodland where they were tasked with building dens in the woods. After a long and busy week in the office, I was less than enthused about the idea. Little did I know I was about to learn an important leadership lesson.
As we went with the girls into the woods I was imagining having to build the den myself, sure that they would begin to struggle with heavy logs or get bored of the activity. The girls ran ahead. One pointed to what she saw as a suitable area, but the others ignored her and moved on. Another girl picked a different location, but her choice also fell on deaf ears. At this point I felt the need to step in and take the lead. But before I had chance to point out a good spot, the girls had all agreed on a tree in the middle of a clearing. Interesting choice—and not a spot I would have picked.
I put my rucksack down and turned to face the tree. The girls had already dispersed into the surrounding woodland to gather the materials to build the den. But I’m not finished planning yet, I thought. I decided I could stay by the tree for now and direct them when they brought back their denning supplies.
Two of the girls came back with a large log. I raised my eyebrows as I noticed they were working together to carry it because it was heavy. I hadn’t told them to do that. They propped the log up on the tree and ran to find other materials.
I pushed on the log to check it was safe. Ah, I see what they’re doing. They seemed to have the hang of it, so I let them bring more wood to the site.
Two different girls brought over another log that was a similar size to the first. I intended to tell them it might be too big, but they propped this one against the tree, too. Wait—this isn’t how the den is supposed to be built!
I waited and watched as the girls continued to bring over a collection of logs, branches and twigs, ferns and grasses—all working together, without my direction, to construct a den. The finished product didn’t look at all how I had imagined it would, but I had to admit: it was quite a good den!
I stood back and admired their hard work. All five girls sat in the den, grinning at me. I grinned back.
These young people had taught me an important lesson in leadership. When the activity started, I was expecting to have to micromanage everything. I imagined I would need to provide clear direction to every girl and then would probably have to give up and just build the den myself. Instead, what happened was that each of the girls found a job she was good at—one came up with the ideas; one collected twigs; one picked ferns—and they got on with their jobs. The end result was better than I could have imagined.
It’s a lesson I’ll be taking back to the office. The girls taught me I need to trust that people will take on the job they’re given and do it not just correctly, but probably better than I could do it on my own. They taught me everyone has a strength—and if you place people in roles that utilise those strengths, the end result will be something far better than what could have been achieved by one person alone.
Nobody wants to be the infuriating micromanager in the workplace. Redirect your efforts with a commitment to recognising your own micromanagement tendencies, then shifting focus to the big picture and motivating your employees. When you make the move from trying to take on the burden of every task to using your energy to be a more effective manager, you’ll be amazed at the results you will get through empowering your people.