HETRICK: If only we could enroll the pols in leadership camp

September 25, 2010

I went to camp last week. The occasion was a kickoff retreat for a leadership training program run by United Way. During the year, class members will learn how to better govern not-for-profit organizations. As one of the teachers, I get to tag along.

After lunch, our class gathered with the Jameson Camp staff for some ice-breaker exercises. On the surface, we were supposed to get to know one another. In reality, we learned something more.

In the first exercise, we stood in the big dining hall and broke into two groups of nine people each. Each group formed a circle. The counselors then asked that we join both hands with the hands of someone across from us. Without letting go, we then had to move to the opposite side of the circle.

In trying to cross over while remaining connected, we wound up in a human knot. To get ourselves out, we had to kneel down, rise up, climb over, duck under, twist, turn and talk through each step for each person in the circle.

In the end, our groups got most people untangled on the other side.

Next, we moved outdoors onto the big lawn. The counselors asked that each group stand on a plastic tarp. It was the size you’d use to cover a picnic table.

With nine of us standing comfortably on each tarp, the counselors presented the challenge: Each group had to fold its tarp in half as many times as possible without anyone stepping off. Whether we folded the tarp vertically or horizontally was up to us.

Folding once was easy, but the remaining space was tight. Folding twice involved much grabbing of waists and arms and holding one another upright. Folding three and four times was confining and uncomfortable. Then, people started falling off the tarp.

During this exercise, we learned something about order and planning. The group that folded its tarp vertically each time fared well. Participants ended up in a straight line on an increasingly narrow tarp.

The group that alternated between horizontal and vertical folds ended up in a mess and quickly ran out of room.

So when all 18 of us moved to a much-larger tarp to try the exercise en masse, we used the all-vertical, straight-line method and sailed through every fold until no room remained for our feet.

Finally, our two teams moved to a ring-and-string exercise.

The counselors led each of our two teams to a small brass ring lying on the ground. Tied to and projecting outward from the ring were a dozen or so 6-foot-long strings. We each took hold of one or two strings.

The counselor then put a softball on the center ring and told us to lift it, move it across the yard, and lower the ring and ball onto a narrow tee.

We soon found out that if we lifted the ball without all the strings taut, it would fall.

We learned that if anyone in the group moved too slowly or too quickly—or stopped altogether—the ball would fall.

We learned that no matter how well we cooperated, if the wind blew too hard, the ball would fall.

And we learned that even when we got proficient, the counselors could trade the heavy softball for a lightweight Wiffle ball, and we had to learn all over again.

All this was compounded, of course, by competition with the other group.

That night, I was contemplating our camp experience as I read, watched and listened to the news of the day.

As usual, the headlines were filled with stories about polarity and partisanship, privatizing and minimizing, yes vs. no, advocacy vs. obstruction, taxing vs. cutting, spending vs. austerity, me vs. us, today vs. tomorrow ad nauseum.

It made me want to ship all the officeholders and office-seekers to Jameson Camp for some lessons in leadership.

I wanted to divvy them up into bipartisan teams, tie them in all-too-familiar knots, and force them to untangle themselves en route to reaching and understanding the other side.

I wanted to park them on an ever-shrinking tarp and force them to realize that austerity measures folded in upon austerity measures will quickly do more than eliminate excess. It will pull the foundation out from under us, knock people off, and make losers of us all.

I wanted to hand them the strings to the brass ring, put a Wiffle ball in the center, and show them that their pass/repeal, stop/go, hurry/wait, yes-we-can/hell-no-we-can’t tug-of-war will have us dropping the ball left and right.

In a camp, or classroom or Capitol full of leaders, an old Neil Diamond song comes to mind:

It’s not about you.

It’s not about me.

[It’s] all about we.•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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