Leadership lessons from 5th graders

This fall I was privileged to be invited to volunteer at a number of events in my 5th grader’s class, including a sleepaway science camp. It was great fun to immerse myself in the world of 10 and 11 year olds. It was also humbling to realize that these children are not little kids anymore – their personalities are coming through and they are unexpectedly competent at all kinds of things.

Interacting with them mirrored a lot of interacting with adults in the workplace. Here are some leadership lessons I took away from this experience.

Set clear expectations and keep reinforcing the message
At the science camp, all meals are served in the dining hall. There were specific rules about how the food will be served from the kitchen, where to refill the pitchers of milk, juice and water, what to do with the leftover food, and how to clean up afterwards.

The rules were read 3 times a day for 4 contiguous days. The kids groaned the second or third time they heard it, but they needed the repetitions. This is because there were a vast number of rules to cover the entire meal, and some of them are non-obvious and changes slightly from meal to meal, like how to dispose of food waste (into the pig food bucket – but not if there’s bacon or chicken bones), compostables, recyclables, and trash. No one liked having the rules read to them at the beginning of each meal but that was both necessary and very effective in keeping law and order in the dining hall with 120 hungry kids.

Lesson learned: clarity equals effectiveness – people do much better when it is absolutely clear what is expected of them, and they are reminded of the expectations at the right times.

Give them space to prove how capable they are
At our house the adults do most of the serving and cleaning, mainly because we are lazy – we can do it faster and we don’t want the food to be spilled or otherwise go to waste. At the camp, children are assigned rotating jobs including getting 12 kids’ worth of food on a platter from the kitchen to the table. That is actually a very heavy platter. We probably wouldn’t have chanced it at home but the kids did great – when the platters were heavy they spontaneously asked for help and not one platter was spilled en route to the table.

Lesson learned: let go, ask for and expect more and they will rise to the occasion.

Spilling some milk isn’t the end of the world

However capable they are, they are 10 or 11 year olds after all and they do knock things over at the table from time to time. One time an entire pitcher of milk was spilled on the table. I started to get up to help but the entire table of kids had already self-mobilized and some went to get kitchen towels while others did what they could quickly with the paper napkins on the table. In 5 minutes the table was cleaned up and we were sitting down again to finish our meal. I was never so impressed in my life.

Lesson learned: Mistakes are ok particularly if you don’t go in to rescue them if something does go wrong. They will fix it by themselves if the fix is within their capabilities.

Improve effort and performance with positive reinforcement

At the end of each meal the camp teachers award a pitcher of fake flowers to the table that did the best job at cleaning up. This resulted in tremendous teamwork. The winning tables for the first several meals were clean enough not to require “touch-up” cleaning afterwards.

There was one table, however, that really struggled with the concept of “clean”. During the first few meals, it really wasn’t apparent they had cleaned up after they thought they were done. The teachers didn’t say anything, but simply kept awarding the flowers to other tables. This table really wanted to win once, so they worked hard to improve things. On the last day they finally won, “because they showed the most improvement from the first day to the last”. Their table wasn’t the cleanest, but it was vastly better than before, and they were the happiest kids that day. The promise of the award proved much more effective than any constructive criticism the teachers could have given.

Lesson learned: Positive reinforcement, when properly deployed, can effect change with or without constructive criticism.

People can achieve astonishing things if they buy into a goal

I was a parent chaperone in a cabin full of girls who are widely known to be fixated about hair. Each day was a challenge because it was hard to get them mobilized quickly enough to be at the meeting place by 7:45am to go to breakfast on time, since it took so long to fix up everybody’s hair.

One of these days, a teacher told everyone there was going to be an early morning hike – we were to meet at 6:30am and hike up a small hill to see the sun come up. We all thought our cabin was going to pass on this challenge. Instead the entire cabin huddled and decided as a group to go on this hike. They asked us to wake them up at 6am, and miraculously, we had 13 (!!) girls ready and present at the meeting place in 30 minutes when every previous morning was a big struggle just getting them to take turns brushing their teeth. We all went up the hill and were rewarded with the most incredible vista of the sun coming up over a far away valley, with mist starting to clear off in the valley and foliage of every color surrounding all of us.

Lesson learned: If the team buys into a goal and adopts it as their own, they will go to extraordinary lengths to support it – but it has to be their own idea.

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