“We were born to be free, to expand our horizons by going where we have never gone before, and not to hang out in the relative comfort and safety of the nest, the known. There is a place within us that is courageous beyond our human understanding; it yearns to explore beyond the boundaries of our daily life.” – Dennis Merritt Jones
My mom was a teacher. She taught 3rd grade most of her career. Growing up, my friends thought it was great that my mom was a teacher, but it wasn’t always great for me. Most kids got sent to the principal’s office for acting up or misbehaving. Not me! I got sent to my mother’s classroom. Corporal punishment was still in play and the principal proudly hung his “board of education” paddle on the wall of his office as a deterrent. I would have preferred a meeting with that “board” any day, if I could have avoided being sent to my mom’s classroom. I can still picture the horror on her face as the teacher explained my activity and then hearing the stern, “Just wait till we get home.”
It seemed like most of my “acting up” happened during recess and on the playground. I guess it was an irresistible smorgasbord of trouble waiting for me, but really, I just loved experimenting. I tested Newtonian physics of balls bouncing off all sorts of surfaces, including other kids. I loved exploring fencing techniques with pretend light saber sticks and branches. I even helped other kids prove or disprove their own theories. A cute little girl with glasses and a confident attitude once declared to me an axiom, “You can’t hit a person with glasses.” Much to her dismay, I was able to prove her wrong. I fully expected to be thanked if not awarded some scientific prize for my discovery, but instead, I was granted another visit to my mother’s classroom, one that had particular impact on me, literally.
Recess! What a glorious thing. There are a lot of life lessons that you can learn during recess. You also get a chance to see curious characteristics of our human traits on display. One particularly interesting observation my mom made was the power of fences. Having had the opportunity to work in many schools with different playgrounds, she noticed that when kids went out to play, if there was no fence, the kids would huddle together, close to the building or by the door. Nobody ventured out very far. When there was a fence, the kids would scatter and run all the way out to the edges, running up and down the fence line. Why is that?
For those kids, the fences created a sense of safety, confidence and certainty. With that in place, the kids used the entire space to explore, create adventures and have fun together. I believe there is a good leadership lesson here. We often talk about unleashing the potential of our team by empowering individuals to creatively solve problems, take on responsibility and innovate. A good leader can help us manage the unknowns by bringing clarity, direction, and expectations. They also promote psychological safety by establishing a culture that avoids the blame game, encourages risk and values continuous learning. Those structures help us navigate, explore and create results without fences. But that is only part of the story.
The leadership lesson here also applies to us individually. So much of our life and the world we live in has no fences. It can be intimidating. Our human tendencies, evoking survival instincts at times, will be to huddle close to what we know, where we feel safe, secure, confident and comfortable. But if we do that, we miss out on the greater prospects and the rewards that can be waiting for us. We need to take bold risks. We should gather our courage and set out on an adventure into the unknown. Experimenting, exploring, discovering, creating, solving and ultimately enjoying greater outcomes than we would otherwise.
Spend some time this week in recess! Examine your fence line. Ask yourself, what is helpful and what isn’t. Take a brave step and go beyond, explore outside the fences and enjoy our spectacular world. And, hopefully, you won’t end up in my mom’s classroom.