Several years ago, I was asked to lead the teenaged girls in my church. When I polled them to find out what they wanted to do, they told me that they wanted to have high adventure activities similar to what the boys were doing in scouting. That made me really happy because I love to be outside and was definitely up for the adventure. During the three years that I oversaw the young women’s program, we went white-water rafting, cycling, camping, hiking, spelunking, and exploring.
During one of our camping trips near Pictured Rocks on Lake Superior, we decided that we wanted to run down the Grand Sable Dunes. The dunes went steeply down for about 300 feet to the water and we warned the girls that anyone who went down also had to climb back up. That warning was enough to stop a few of the girls, but several of the girls and leaders were excited about the adventure and we all ran down the sand together.
Exploring the beach was interesting and fun and the water was cold and refreshing. Then we had to climb back up. In addition to the hot sand and steep embankment, the black flies would start biting anyone who stopped moving. It was not easy or pleasant climbing back up.
The youngest girl in the group was really struggling. She was in full melt-down mode, convinced that a helicopter was going to have to be called to come and get her out. When I told her that the only way out was for her to climb and that a helicopter wasn’t coming, she was dismayed. I stayed with her the entire climb up the dune, encouraging her and helping her come up with strategies for her to make it up the dune.
I had her focus on short term goals. I would have her pick out a rock or patch of grass a few feet away and then we would climb together to that spot and rest. We had to experiment with different ways of walking. If you tried to walk straight up the sand, you would slide down, which was causing her great frustration. Wide steps allowed movement upward. I tried to make her laugh and tell her funny stories as we rested. I was firm letting her know that she was going to have to do this on her own and that was the only way out. We celebrated how far we had come, which gave her confidence she could make it to the top of the dune.
It took a very long time and she was not happy when we finally made it to the parking lot where the rest of the group was waiting. A good meal and a few hours of rest restored her spirits and she was proud that she had made it up the dune. It is an experience she will remember and will give her the confidence to tackle other hard things in her life.
Another adult who was not with our group was observing my interaction with this girl and asked if I was her mother. When I said that I wasn’t, she said that is what she guessed because I had been so patient. My take away as a leader from this experience is that being present, patient, supportive, and firm when those around us are struggling is really helpful to their growth, even when they are not happy about it.
In this case, I could not carry this girl up the dune. She had to walk up the dune herself. In our teams at work, this is often not the case. It may seem much easier to take away the struggle instead of helping someone through it. The question to ask ourselves when we are tempted to step in and rescue a struggling team member is “What is the long term impact on this person and the team when we have to do something else hard in the future?”