The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
It was late at night, and I had already powered off my laptop when my phone buzzed:
“I think we’ve made a big mistake. We have to restart the project.”
Staring at the message, I was in disbelief. After working for weeks, how could he expect us to scrap everything, and still meet the fast-approaching deadline? I immediately dismissed his absurd suggestion, and my patience wore thin as he pushed back with frustratingly convincing arguments. Ultimately perceiving his suggestion as an attempt to usurp my authority, I declared that the leader decides for the team, I was the leader, and my answer was a definitive no.
I have always been comfortable in leadership roles, so when my fellow students and I were divided into project teams at Cornell Summer College this year, I immediately volunteered to be our group leader. Tasked with comparing the stocks of two direct competitors and selecting the more favorable option, I decided to choose Dunkin’ Donuts over Starbucks, delegated the workload, and scheduled our research in advance. Our report was well-written, supported by sound analysis, and completed well before the deadline. Then, two days before our presentation, Thor, one of my teammates, dropped his bombshell proposal: to start the project over from scratch and pick Starbucks stock instead.
Unable to sleep that night, I questioned why my leadership suddenly felt so shaky. I reassured myself that my decision to reject Thor’s motion was in the team’s best interest. Yet, I had doubts. Replaying our exchange in my mind, I began to wonder why I had been so quick to veto his suggestion. It was raised with good intentions and, despite the infeasibility of completely restarting our research last minute, could be considered in perhaps reforming aspects of our current research.
Having always thought of a leader as the gatekeeper of ideas, judging their merit and making the final call, I had for weeks treated my teammates as second fiddles. By allowing them only enough freedom to complete delegated tasks but never to influence the overall direction of the project, the work we produced “as a team” consequently reflected what I would have produced on my own. It occurred to me that my previous understanding of leadership was missing a dimension. Instead of controlling the flow of ideas with an iron grip, it dawned on me that real leaders should consider each unique perspective with an open mind so that the best insights can be capitalized upon. I realized that my teammates likely had many more valid ideas than I gave them credit for, and I became determined to change my approach.
Loosening my control, I called a team meeting to broach an open-ended conversation about the direction of our project. Pleasantly surprised to be included in this way, my two other teammates expressed desires to keep our presentation as it was. To their dismay, though, Thor remained adamant about the relative strength of Starbucks stock. I encouraged my other teammates to consider his arguments with an open mind. Together, we arrived at a compromise: to short our original Dunkin’ Donuts stock and invest long-term in Starbucks, so that we could use our previous analysis while also incorporating Thor’s ideas. This time, I watched my teammates excitedly reformulate the analysis, providing feedback when requested but no longer attempting to control the process.
By empowering my teammates to bring their best ideas forward and directly influence the direction of our project, I led them to produce a presentation that exceeded the project requirements by exploring short-sell strategies. We received a 98% score for the overall project, which, although satisfying, was far overshadowed by my new, nuanced understanding of leadership. Although leaders must take charge, they must also know when to step back to allow the emergence of fresh insights from their team.
Nothing like a project on coffee to give me that kind of wakeup call.Published in